The ultimate goal of The Progress Fund's Trail Town Program® is to establish corridors of revitalized communities by facilitating development of the 21 trail towns.
According to William Prince, Trail Town Program® Manager at The Progress Fund, trails represent a new market for these communities, which are typically old railroad and industrial towns.
"Finding ways for towns to reinvent themselves and establish new economic development opportunities can be challenging," explains Prince. "Trails across the region have been developing and connecting to each other. The more the trails are connected, the more people will come to trail towns and the more they will spend."
The Trail Town Program®'s ability to serve these communities has been strengthened with a recent $140,000 federal grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Community Development Initiative. According to the USDA website, the grants help increase the competitiveness of rural communities in attracting and retaining businesses that provide employment and service for their residents.
The grant, which started in May 2015 and runs through May 2017, "enables us to continue and grow our assistance programs to the communities across the regions over the next two years," says Prince.
The grant will be used to implement the Trail Town Program®'s "Six Services" to 19 rural communities across the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition region to network and leverage resources in trail tourism and revitalization. The six services are business assistance and development, marketing, economic research, community connections, real estate development and small business loans.
"These Six Services are our toolbox," explains Prince. "We work in partnership with town officials, chambers, trail builders, trail programs, nonprofits and others to identify opportunities and goals, and implement different projects and services that best fit each community."
While the grant will fund expansion of this program, "Six Services" has already done a lot to revitalize trail towns.
For example, the business assistance and development program has provided 29 trail and recreational business loans to build service gaps along trails such as bed and breakfasts, restaurants, bike shops and more. And the program has launched a Trail Town Certified Network – with over 100 current members – to better equip businesses with trail friendly and sustainable practices.
Another example, says Prince, is Community Connections, which has funded everything from improved trailheads and park areas, signage, scenic and town views, and bike racks. "These projects make the trails more user friendly and attract trail users into town – making an impact on the communities," he says.
A newer example is real estate development. "The Progress Fund has taken on the role of identifying key locations and key properties – often blighted – that can be opportunities to encourage a business or entrepreneur to open a new business in town," explains Prince. Recent developments include a new Subway restaurant and expanded bed and breakfast in West Newton and blight removal to the town gateway in Meyersdale.
All of the trail development and trail town revitalization has been good for trail users and for locals. In fact, the Great Allegheny Passage, the longest standing Trail Town Program, has seen a $50 million direct economic impact since 2012. While the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail and the Trans-Allegheny Trails, which are in the developmental stages, are reporting direct economic impact figures of $7.48 million and $1.7 million, respectively.
"Over the years there are more connections, more services, more people – having a greater impact," says Prince. "Each piece of the puzzle comes together and creates a new place, a new economy for people visiting and living in trail towns across the region."