Trail Town Program manager didn't take usual path
William “Will” Prince didn't take a path you'd expect for a manager of a program that invests millions of dollars into economic development in towns along Western Pennsylvania's extensive recreational trail system.
He started out studying French education and zoology at Kent State University. Then he changed tack and earned a degree in humanities from the University of Pittsburgh. In the end, it is the 28-year-old from Elizabeth Township's energy and love of historic preservation that is leading him to success as the manager of the Trail Town Program.
“He's very energetic. He's very positive. His ideas are very progressive,” said Pamela Humenik, West Newton borough secretary.
The Trail Town Program has been active in towns such as West Newton, as well as Connellsville, Ohiopyle and Confluence along the 180-mile Great Allegheny Passage that connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md.
Through The Progress Fund in Greensburg, 33 new businesses or business expansions have been bankrolled with $7.8 million in loans that has leveraged $1.4 million more in private funding through the work of the program Prince manages.
It has helped to preserve the heritage of the communities in which it operates, particularly in West Newton, where financing was made available to an entrepreneur to buy three old trailside buildings. One is now a bed and breakfast. Another is being renovated into a hostel for trail users. The third, a shuttered tavern, was gutted and turned into a Subway restaurant overlooking the Youghiogheny River.
“I've always been interested in historic preservation in some way or the other,” said Prince, who earned a certificate in the field after getting his degree.
His interest in historic preservation on the job in the trail towns extends to his personal life. Prince is a board member of Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, which represents and promotes younger voices in historic preservation.
“We look to get young people and the youth involved in preservation and try to find ways to save and restore unique, buildings and places and sites,” Prince said.
Prince, who grew up in the region and has been involved in the Trail Town Program for four years, said he has seen a change in people's views in the trail towns during his time there. What were once places were people lamented “there is nothing to do in this town,” are now being seen for their tourist value — made vibrant by the visitors who come from across the United States and other countries, Prince said.
“The trail is a way to look at the communities from a different perspective — to look at the trail towns as a visitor would,” Prince said.
That approach has won the admiration of one of his bosses, David Kahley, president and CEO of The Progress Fund, a community development financial agency founded 18 years ago.
“He's grounded and committed to the field, and learning skills he needs,” Kahley said.
Making the connection between towns and trail users and businesses serving the hiker and bicyclist is an overriding theme of the program Prince is guiding. Through research studies of trail users, the Trail Town Program tries to identify the needs of a community – what's there already and what is missing in terms of services that the trail market needs, Prince said.
“We work in a lot of communities where the trail is just there” and is not being utilized as the asset it could be, Prince said. Sometimes all that is needed is positioning the trailhead in the town at a different spot or doing a better job of marketing where it is available to users.
The projects the program has done to enhance the trail in the towns it passes through include installing bike racks, informative kiosks and signs to show visitors what is available and where to go for it.
These “are ways to connect the trails and the communities together to improve the experience for visitors,” Prince said. “One of our overall goals is to get more businesses involved in the trail market — to connect with businesses further down the trail, whether it is a lodging or a restaurant.”
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or email@example.com.