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Communities peddle benefits of bike trails

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 8:29 a.m.

John Wolfe, of Kansas City, Mo., rides bike trails throughout the country and was in West Newton last week, looking forward to his first jaunt on the Youghiogheny River Trail.

"It gives you something to do besides sitting in front of the computer," Wolfe said. "It gets you out of the house, and you get exercise."

Wolfe represents what trail proponents say is the need to continue to invest in improving the region's recreational opportunities, which provide local residents with exercise and attract thousands of visitors -- and their money.

Trails "preserve public land and promote recreation," said Joe O'Neill, executive director of the Regional Trail Corp. "It lends to a healthy lifestyle, people getting outside. These trails drive the economy in all communities. Folks come into town, use them and spend money."

The state Department of Transportation announced earlier this year it was awarding $9.3 million for trail projects. Recreational trails in Westmoreland, Fayette and Indiana counties received $3.5 million.

Click here to see a map of the trails funded by state Department of Transportation grants.

In West Newton, where the trail has become an integral part of the community's economy and crosses the town's main street, a grant of $138,000 will be used to provide outside amenities -- such as parking, lighting, walkways and signs -- to the Train Station Visitor's Center.

Malcolm Sias, the parks planning coordinator for Westmoreland County, said he hopes work will begin next year.

"We're in the process of doing the inside of the building with a grant we currently have," Sias said. "This should actually finish the project."

Visitors from all over

The trail, which runs from McKeesport to Connellsville and was built along the river on property acquired from Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, has bolstered the town's economy.

"It's a wonderful thing," said Art Berarducci, West Newton's mayor. "When they came through with that trail, they really opened things up. ... Almost every day there's people walking or riding. It's a really nice thing."

The West Newton Bicycle Shop has a prime location for business from the trail.

"The parking lot for the bike trail is right in the parking lot here," said Floyd Marcheska, bike shop manager. "You can't get any better than that. We get a ton of business from the trail. We get them from all over."

The Picnic Place, a small snack stand along the trail, has had customers from across the country and beyond.

"People know we're here and they'll stop and get something to eat," employee Missy Koontz said. "We had people from California, people from Illinois on that trail. Last year, we had somebody who I think was from Australia."

Trail use has proved so popular that the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau will dedicate a separate phone line and employee to answer calls about the Great Allegheny Passage, a complex of trails from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., that includes the Youghiogheny River Trail.

The bureau will help folks find maps, lodging, dining and activities along the 100 miles of the passage that go through Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties. They're expecting to field about 10 calls a day.

Recently, bureau employees held trail hospitality seminars in West Newton, Connellsville, Confluence, Ohiopyle, Rockwood and Meyersdale to stress to town leaders and business owners the importance of being able to offer everything from directions to suggestions of things to see and do.

"We see the whole trail system throughout the Laurel Highlands as one of our major assets for outdoor recreation," visitors bureau spokeswoman Julie Donovan said.

While the visitors bureau markets the Great Allegheny Passage, other trails in the area offer both recreational opportunities and economic boosts.

Figures on the financial impact of individual trails are not available. However, the Allegheny Trail Alliance conducted its most recent economic impact study in 2002 on the Great Allegheny Passage. It revealed the average trail user spends between $8.91 and $10.77 per visit, including lodging expenses.

Expansion the next step

An expansion of the Five Star Trail, which runs along a corridor between Greensburg and Youngwood, received a $776,250 grant for an 11-mile addition from Youngwood to Scottdale.

"Right now, the trail is just about 5.5 miles," said Duane Wolley, a Five Star Trail board member. "It's going to about triple the mileage. It's an awfully good way to exercise, both walking and bicycling, even occasionally cross-country skiing."

Wolley said about 25,000 to 50,000 people take to the trail annually. The expansion is expected to spur new businesses in several communities.

"We're pretty rural between Youngwood and Scottdale," Wolley said. "This will probably encourage some economic development there. There's a few restaurants, there will probably be a few more, maybe ice cream shops. A few years down the line when we get to Connellsville, people riding along the trail may lend itself to a bed-and-breakfast or something."

Another grant of $552,000 will go toward completing the construction of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail between County Road in Loyalhanna Township and Slickville, a distance of about 2.5 miles.

"It's supposed to ultimately run across the county from Saltsburg to Trafford," Sias said of the project, which he hopes will begin next year. "We don't know if we can acquire the land past Delmont, but that's a long way into the future. We figure if we can get to Route 66, that's getting somewhere."

Lots of attractions

A popular trail in Indiana and Cambria counties is the Ghost Town Trail, which extends for 12 miles on an abandoned Conrail line in the Blacklick Creek Valley from Dilltown, Indiana County, to Nanty Glo, Cambria County.

Ed Patterson, director of Indiana County Parks and Trails, said he recently talked with visitors from Michigan who came to town specifically to ride the Ghost Town Trail.

"We need to capture more of those people, keep them here," he said.

A $1.1 million grant will go toward replacing two bridges washed away in a 1977 flood. Patterson hopes construction can begin in the spring or summer of 2007.

"This is the final missing link," Patterson said. "These are two pretty-good-sized bridges. Once we have this in place, we'll be 46 miles of continuous trails."

The Dillweed Bed & Breakfast, in Dilltown, has benefited from the trail, especially its gift shop.

"We generally see business (from the trail) Saturdays and Sundays," said C. Gilmore, one of the owners. "We're at an advantage because we are directly adjacent to the Ghost Town Trail. Our place is a nice place for people to cool down and have a snack."

German Township Supervisor Dan Shimshock said trails help communities by keeping people close to home.

"A lot of residents are going outside the area," Shimshock said. "We have people who travel to Morgantown to use the trails. Having it is a convenience for people. It's something that gives young people somewhere to go."

In German Township, Fayette County, the Browns Run Trail is ticketed for $517,500 for the construction of about 2.5 miles of a bicycling and walking trail. Three bridges will be constructed and an abandoned railroad right of way will be rehabilitated.

Doug Coffman, of Widmer Engineering in Connellsville, said the project may go out for bid before fall. "Once we get started (on construction), it shouldn't take more than a couple of months," he said.

The trail follows the abandoned Monongahela and B&O lines that pass through the heart of the coal and coke region in southern Fayette County.

The Sheepskin Rail Trail in Fayette County also will receive funding.

Art Cappella, chief community development specialist for Fayette County, said the $400,000 grant is intended for construction of 10.4 miles of trail between Dunbar and Uniontown.

"We expect design to be complete in a few months," Cappella said. "(County) commissioners look at this trail as an economic stimulus, a type of recreational facility major employers look for in advance of relocating into an area. A lot of tourists will come to see these trails."

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