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Good trail news for Connellsville

| Friday, May 22, 2015, 12:36 a.m.
A bicyclist walks along the Great Allegheny Passage that runs through Connellsville.
Evan R. Sanders | Trib Total Media
A bicyclist walks along the Great Allegheny Passage that runs through Connellsville.

Who would have thought that a bike trail between Ohiopyle State Park and the sleepy town of Confluence would grow into a network of trails linking Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.?

It's been nearly 30 years since that first trail was finished — but it continues to inch its way throughout Western Pennsylvania and Maryland, providing economic opportunities along its way.

In recent months, Connellsville has seen long-empty buildings restored and reopened as visitor-friendly businesses, which is a good sign for the city's future.

That was the message of Will Prince, director of the Progress Fund in Greensburg, at this month's “Lunch and Learn Session.” The meeting was hosted by Fayette County Cultural Trust this week at the Connellsville Canteen.

Connellsville has received trail updates and garnered trail feedback through the Progress Fund's Trail Town Program, the goal of which is to maximize the economic potential of trail-based tourism.

Prince was enthusiastic about the city's revitalization. “There's a lot of new business here; many less empty storefronts,” he said.

Currently, Connellsville is one of eight designated Trail Towns that receive advice and matching grant money for projects to attract local residents and visitors. Other trail towns are Ohiopyle, West Newton, Confluence, Rockwood and Meyersdale in Pennsylvania, and Frostburg, Cumberland and Old Town in Maryland.

The Great Allegheny Passage, linking Pittsburgh to Cumberland, opened in June 2013 — but that's just the beginning, according to Prince. Plans are under way for additional links, such as the Sheepskin Trail, which fans off the GAP near Wheeler to Dunbar; from there it will be extended to Point Marion. A trail from Erie to the GAP at Pittsburgh is in the works, as is one between Saltsburg and Ebensburg.

Prince said that meetings are scheduled soon in Dunbar and Point Marion to discuss finalization of the Sheepskin Trail. The idea behind the Progress Fund is to encourage people to network within their communities — and with other communities — to provide good signage and advertisements that will make recreationists return again for a longer stay. Small things such as bicycle racks and “fix-it” stations, trailhead and park beautification, directions to town and what it has to offer and renovation to key buildings will make the difference in the long run.

“Towns like Connellsville need to think beyond the trail itself,” Prince said. “Working together, businesses could put together special vacation packages to lure people back to stay longer the next time.”

The city's plans for the Cobblestone Hotel near Yough River Park should be a major boost for those who choose long journeys along the trail.

During the past year, the Project Fund initiated the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition. Its advocates are government, non-profit and private foundations which hope to connect a 1,600- mile network of trail links — including 53 counties in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

“Currently 53 percent of those trails are ‘on the ground,' so we still have quite a way to go,” said Prince.

Michael Edwards, president of Fayette County Cultural Trust, and its executive director Dan Cocks, were enthusiastic about this month's “Lunch and Learn” program.

“It's good to see so many groups and individuals coming together to make our community a better place,” said Edwards.

The next “Lunch and Learn” session will be held at noon June 16. The speaker will be Clara Pascoe, executive director of the Community Foundation of Fayette County.

Laura Szepesi is a Trib Total Media contributing writer.

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