Post-Gazette: The unexpected growth of business along the Great Allegheny Passage

Rite of Passage

Sunday, July 27, 2008
By Mary Kate Malone, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WEST NEWTON — From her hot dog stand, Barb Philipp, 41, can see the tops of Trailside Restaurant’s patio umbrellas, a renovated West Newton visitors center, and the simple crushed-stone trail of the Great Allegheny Passage, which made it all possible.

This has been the busiest summer ever for her business, said Mrs. Phillip, who has been selling food and drinks to trail users from the same spot for six years.

There’s no doubt, she said, that the 150-mile long biking and hiking trail from McKeesport to Washington, D.C., is transforming the town at a much faster pace than any of its 3,000 residents ever expected.

“When you’re a small town, you don’t know if there is any economic future,” said George Sam of Downtown West Newton Inc., which has been working to revitalize the city’s Main Street.

“But when you bring a trail in that brings people from all over the world, all of a sudden we have a direction. We can be more than we are, we have assets to share,” he said.

The trail, which is slated to connect to Point State Park in Pittsburgh by this fall, is attracting entrepreneurs who see dollar signs in the increasing number of walkers, runners and bikers using it.

At the same time, money from state and county government is helping towns perk up. In West Newton, plans are in place for a new community square with a concert stage and park area.

In 2007, Somerset County officials counted 31 new businesses started as a direct result of the Great Allegheny Passage. The Trail Town Program, an arm of the non-profit Progress Fund and supported by government and foundation money, helped start 11 new businesses last year alone. Halfway into 2008, Trail Town has aided eight more, and assisted with another two.

“Of course it’s not like having a major industry that’s going to employ 5,000 people,” said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the coalition of seven trail organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania and western Maryland that built and maintains the passage. “But it’s a lot of entrepreneurial outfits, a handful of employees in lodging, food services, bike rental and repair. It’s bit by bit.

“As the community starts to revitalize, people say, ‘Hey this is a great place to live,’ and it just adds to the quality of community life.”

Pioneers lead the way

Rod Darby and business partner John Markle opened their Trailside convenience store and restaurant in 2006 in West Newton, convinced their location — a mere 20 steps from the trail — would provide a steady stream of customers.

Two years — and one damaging fire — later, the business has tripled its sales, added a patio for outdoor dining, and fielded countless phone calls from other entrepreneurs looking for advice on starting a business along the trail.

“The traffic has increased tremendously,” Mr. Darby said while standing in the dining area of his restaurant, which recently hired a chef to expand the menu. “We have traffic from all over the world. Every day we have someone from some part of the country sitting in our restaurant.”

Mr. Markle said he has served customers from 48 of the 50 states and 13 foreign countries, including China, Japan, New Zealand and Israel.

What’s more, Trailside employs about 27 workers, many of them from West Newton.

An economic impact study conducted in 2007 determined the trail is generating $12.5 million in revenue and pouring more than $3 million in wages into trail-side communities.

In 2002, even before the Great Allegheny Passage joined the C&O Canal Towpath to Washington, D.C., about 350,000 people biked, hiked or walked some part of the passage, according to a study by the Trail Towns Program. Cathy McCollum, Trail Town’s regional director, predicts that number will be at least 1 million for 2008. Trailhead parking lots are full on the weekends.

Funding from state, county and local governments is helping, but so are business visionaries like Mr. Darby and Mr. Markle.

“We’re the explorers,” Mr. Markle said, referring to entrepreneurs who took on a sizable financial burden to start a business along the trial. “We have taken a risk and we hope it pays off.”

In Confluence, an increasing number of trail users have been staying in Carol Kemp’s bed and breakfast, about a mile from the trail. When she and her husband, David, took over the RiveRest in 2003, their customers came mostly from visitors to nearby Fallingwater, the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh.

But these days, 50 percent of her business comes from the trail.

Spreading the word

Back in West Newton, Mr. Markle and Mr. Darby are eager for their neighbors to spruce up their properties, many of which are in need of repair or, at the least, a fresh coat of paint.

“We are at the very beginning of making this a very different community,” Mr. Markle said. “You have to bring facilities here that are world-class. I vow to show people something great can be done here.”

After biking about 16 miles on the trail last Thursday, Larry Kozlowski, 60, stopped for soup and a sandwich at Trailside.

It was his second visit to the restaurant since last week.

A great deal of business development along the trail can be attributed to the efforts of the Trail Town Program, which provides loans, support and guidance for start-up businesses.

“We work with communities to help them take better advantage of the growing trail market… such as putting in bike racks, safe street crossings, benches,” said Ms. McCollum of the Trail Town Program. “The community has to welcome the visitors.”

Ray Silbaugh, 61, is doing just that in his hometown of Confluence. Mr. Silbaugh returned there in 1993 to run a restaurant and hardware store after spending 28 years in Baltimore, Md. In that time, he has seen the town perk up and diversify, thanks to the talented entrepreneurs who set up shop there.

“They are very, very capable people and they have brought some talent with them,” Mr. Silbaugh said, noting that the newcomers have embraced the community by supporting local businesses, joining civic organizations and volunteering their time to help with marketing and Web development for the town.
First published on July 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

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