In the fall of 2011, the Power of 32 regional visioning project identified initiatives to unlock the potential of the region and improve its future. A key initiative was to connect the regional trail system – to increase recreational opportunities, economic development related to trails, and a greater sense of regional connectedness.
To realize this vision, a regional coalition was formed, initially led by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC).
Flash forward four years and the coalition, now known as the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, has evolved to a group of more than 20 trail builders and supporters in in 53 counties in four states. With project support from PEC, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and the Nation Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) Program, the coalition has 23 signed partners collaborating to complete and connect a systems of 1,600 miles of shared use trails.
According to Davitt Woodwell, president and CEO of PEC, "the coalition is an initiative for these groups to support and leverage their efforts to complete regionally significant trail networks and connect major destinations."
While the coalition partners steer the vision, they have recently created corridor working groups to help get the work done and support the individual trail groups. "The corridor working groups are identifying why there are gaps in the trails and developing solutions for filling the gaps," says Eric Oberg, Director of Trail Development, Rails-To-Trails Conservancy Midwest Regional Office.
The coalition website points out that the most common challenges for the 50 identified connectivity gaps are land acquisition, funding, and engineering/physical impediments.
"What's great about the working groups," Woodwell adds, "is that the core of the effort has been taken to the corridor working groups to work collaboratively to overcome and solve problems."
"We don't want to subsume the trail groups," explains Woodwell. "They need to have their identity. They are local projects and you always need a local organization and volunteer base that can rally for a section of the trial."
He says that the coalition wants to support the corridor working groups' efforts as much as possible, while hoping that talking about the larger network enables them to leverage that to their benefit.
And according to Oberg there's a lot to talk about.
He says that the trail movement has matured enough that "we can ask for funds – not as a passionate advocate but an informed advocate."
Through collaborative work, the coalition now knows how many people are using the trails and how much money they are spending. They understand what trails mean to communities from an economic standpoint, and are getting better at benchmarking health benefits.
The coalition is using these data and the information from the working groups to develop a master plan, which Oberg describes as a "manifesto for all of the coalition members saying who we are, what we are, why we are – and the types of work that will drive this forward."
"Coalition members have worked in earnest over the last few years to define the trail corridors, identify gaps in the trail network, and to develop the mapping technology to support the overall effort," says Woodwell.
When asked if they are trailblazers, Woodwell responded that two of the of the most exciting next generation trail efforts are going on Pennsylvania and surrounding states – the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition and the Circuit in Philadelphia.
It's so fun that something that is taking off nationally is being driven by Power of 32 region," says Oberg. "This part of the world – the industrial heartland – is setting the tone for new trail networks."