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Riding the Trail to Revitalization: Rural and Small Town Trail-Oriented Development

Trace Trail bike race
Bike race through Covington, LA, a trailhead community along the Tammany Trace Trail. Source: Hagen Hammons

A major challenge facing many rural American communities is strengthening and diversifying the economy. Limited opportunities and resources threaten economic vitality and a community’s quality of life. Often this is perpetuated by a steady decline with low property values creating a low property tax base, impacting schools, services and infrastructure.

Making a place welcoming, beautiful, and usable for the community while also creating an attractive setting for new business investment is a key step in development and ensuring a vibrant future for communities. This is no small task and there are a variety of economic development and revitalization tactics, however creating access to high quality multi-modal recreation trails is one tool that has been shown to be a powerful economic engine for small towns and rural communities.

The benefits of trails extend beyond just fitness and leisure—trail-based economic development, also known as “Trail-Oriented Development” (TrOD), is a tool which capitalizes on trails as community amenities and leverages the placemaking and development potential adjacent to trails. TrOD invests in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to provide high quality transportation and recreation options, create desirable destinations, and ultimately contribute to a livable community.

There are many benefits to creating high quality trails that activate communities and serve as connectors to other destinations:

  • Increased traffic on trails is an incentive for business development and added investment in the community
  • Increased property values with the addition of trail amenities  
  • Increased pedestrian and bike safety with protected trails
  • Improved connectivity and accessibility to alternative modes of transportation
  • Promote healthier activities and behavior
  • Attract visitors: support job and business growth in tourism sector

Every city and town has a unique set of variables so there are a wide variety of approaches to trail oriented development depending on the goals and size of a community, as well as existing amenities and characteristics. Trails can be implemented for regional economic development as a quality of life enhancement that will retain and attract residents seeking to live in proximity to recreation opportunities.

A 2012 study by the National Association of Homebuilders titled What Home Buyers Really Want found that the presence of walking and jogging trails would seriously influence the purchase decision of 60 percent of all homebuyers when looking to move into a new community.Trails can also encourage tourism development by creating a desirable destination for recreation and attract business development to support trail users. In other circumstances trails can serve as a main street and downtown revitalization tool to connect different areas and increase accessibility to stores and services. A Community Preference Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors in 2011 indicated that 66 percent of respondents rank high importance for being within walking distance of stores and other community amenities.

The following case studies illustrate some examples of successful trail projects which serve as valuable community amenities.  

Tammany Trace (aka, the “Trace”) in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana

The Abita Springs, LA trailhead serves as a community gathering and events space. The Busker Festival hosted around the trailhead pavilion. Photo courtesy of Hagen Hammons.

A recent in-depth study by University of Oregon graduate student Hagen Hammons illustrates another example of a trail project activating rural communities. The author studied the Tammany Trace Trail (commonly referred to as The Trace) in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.  The Trace is a 27-mile-long rail-to-trail conversion and is Louisiana’s first rail trail.The trail connects five distinct communities from east to west starting at Covington (pop 9,352), to Abita Springs (pop 2,450), to Mandeville (pop 12,193), to Lacombe (pop 8,679) and ending at the western city limits of Slidell (pop 27,526).

The Trace trailheads in Covington, Abita Springs, and Mandeville are important downtown community gathering places which are strategically located in proximity to businesses and services and serve as settings for year-round events ranging from farmer’s markets to concerts. In Covington, the small trailhead park has a bandstand, amphitheater, and visitor center.The Abita Springs trailhead features an historic pavilion, the Abita Trailhead Museum and an outdoor performance stage.Mandeville’s trailhead has a Trailhead and Cultural Interpretive Center. Each trailhead hosts a variety of events throughout the year that draw thousands of visitors and locals alike every year. An estimated 426,000 visitors in 2013 stayed in hotel rooms in the communities along the Trace. In addition to weekly farmer’s markets at all three trailheads, Abita Springs hosts the Louisiana Busker Festival, Abita Springs Water Festival, and the Natural Living Fest while Covington hosts a seasonal “Rockin’ the Rails” concert series.

Beyond special events, the trailheads serve as a stopping, starting, or resting point along the trail and bring people into the city to shop, dine, and play. Covington Mayor Mike Cooper has said that, “The Trace is an invaluable asset to us economically and culturally, [it] boosts economic development and civic pride because it is in close proximity to many restaurants and it showcases city history.” User comments collected from Hammons’ surveys reflect a similar appreciation of the trail, for example: “I want to move here because of the Trace”, “Wouldn’t come to the Northshore without the Trace”, and “Highlight of the reason why I live here”. The Trace Trail provides a health and quality of life benefit to the parish as a combined 72.4% of users use the trail for exercise, recreation, or for enjoying nature. The average yearly number of trail users between 2008 and 2014 was 197, 219 users, and when asked during a survey on the trail “Do you see the Trace and its Trailheads as valuable community amenities?” 99.2% of respondents answered yes.

While the trail serves as a recreational amenity and transit corridor for local residents, many of these users are also non-local. These users have an economic impact on these communities as they spend on overnight accommodations, food, refreshments, apparel, and equipment. It is estimated that non-local direct spending while riding the trace averages $108,278 per year. When local spending is included in this analysis there is an estimated $2,816,924 total average spent each year by Trace users. The implementation of the Tammany Trace Trail has had significant economic and health impacts on the towns along the trail with increased spending, programming and activities centered around the trailheads and high quality opportunities for exercise and recreation. 

The Tammany Trace along the Slidell Trailhead. Photo Courtesy of Hagen Hammons.

Radnor Trail, Radnor Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania 

Even in towns with existing park and trail networks, new trails can continue to add value to the community. The 2.4-mile-long Radnor Multipurpose Trail in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania (pop 31,531) was opened in 2006 and now has an estimated 150,000 annual users who primarily use the trail for recreation and fitness (jogging, cycling, rollerblading, dog walking). While there was initially opposition to the trail from nearby homeowners and residents who cited concerns over safety and vandalism the positive impact and significant added value to residential property values has mollified the opposition.

The Radnor Multipurpose Trail. Photo Courtesy of the Township of Radnor

An analysis by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission found that homes within a quarter mile of the Radnor Trail were valued on average $69,139 higher than other properties and proximity to the Radnor Trail is often cited as a key amenity in real estate listings. When the trail was first constructed homeowners installed a large fence between their homes and the trail. Now that the trail is so heavily used many homeowners view it as an amenity and have installed gates in the fence and steps or pathways for access to the trail from their properties. In addition to daily recreational use, special community programming and events are hosted on the trail. The upcoming Bike Rodeo includes a ride along the Radnor Trail, safety demonstrations and bike skill games and the Radnor Steps program offers a weekly group walking opportunity to promote physical activity.  

No two communities will approach trail-based economic development in the same way but there are several principles and considerations communities should use to guide trail development. These principles are key in capturing the potential benefits of trails--trail oriented development is about much more than just implementing trail infrastructure. It is important to:

  • Understand community capacity and desires: services and infrastructure should match the scale and use of the trail.  
  • Identify target markets based on trail characteristics: different types of trails (material, size, destinations) will attract different users.
  • Strategically place trailheads and destinations in coordination with other businesses and services.
  • Cultivate partnerships and collaboration: trails are one element of a larger visitor experience and should be implemented in tandem with other high quality opportunities and services  to draw a more diverse group of visitors.
  • Plan a diversity of events and activities for year-round use and activation.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has produced a handbook for Implementing Trail-Based Economic Development Programs which expands on these important concepts and provides several more case studies of a variety of successful trail projects

Trail-based development is an exciting opportunity to create engaging, healthy, and vibrant rural communities. Trails build strong, economically vital communities by attracting visitors and local users to a destination and delivering additional spending to businesses. With improved business and increased revenue there is a better climate for new jobs and tax revenue. In addition, trails are a valuable community amenity which benefit quality of life by providing opportunities for exercise, active recreation and alternatives modes of transit for accessing services and activities in the community. An improvement in quality of life not only benefits residents and overall health but also makes towns more attractive to companies and businesses which can attract further investment, jobs and revenue.