When my 16-year-old daughter and I went on one of our weekly outings last summer, we hopped on our bikes in Verona, Wis. (population 10,600) and pedaled 13 miles on the Military Ridge Trail to Mount Horeb (population 7,500) for an early dinner at the Grumpy Troll Restaurant. Then, as the sun set, we cruised back on the old Chicago and North Western Railroad corridor.
That ride is repeated thousands of times each summer on the 40-mile-long trail near Madison, Wis., and hundreds of thousands of times each year on other trails around the country, pumping millions of dollars into rural communities.
According to the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation, cycling boosts the Badger State’s economy by a whopping $1.5 billion annually through tourism, recreation, retail and manufacturing, providing more than 13,200 jobs. It brings in $535 million in tourism dollars from outof- state visitors alone, and it all started when Wisconsin built the Elroy-Sparta Trail back in 1967 on an abandoned Chicago and North Western rail bed. Since then, the state has spent more than $240 million on bicycle projects.
Bill Kalscheur, treasurer of the Friends of the Military Ridge Trail and a former grocery store owner in Mount Horeb, estimates that more than 100,000 people ride the trail that cuts through his town each year.
“Mount Horeb and the Grumpy Troll are a big destination for a lot of the riders, too, but businesses in the towns of Verona, Riley and Blue Mounds also benefit,” he said. “It’s a great trail because it connects to Gov. Dodge State Park, Blue Mounds State Park and there’s a new spur to Brigham Park.
“We haven’t been able to afford an economic impact study on the trail, but we know people have moved here because of the trail and our other assets.”
In Pennsylvania, David Kahley, president and CEO of the Progress Fund, said the 150-mile-long Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) bike trail is key to the economic redevelopment of towns on the route, which runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. (population 20,500).
“Study after study has shown that trails boost communities of all sizes economically and in other ways, so there’s no longer any real debate about that,” he said.
“The question in my mind is how big this benefit can be because the market is huge for people who want to hike and ride gentle trails like these where they don’t have to huff and puff up steep hills. My group runs a regional economic development program that helps redevelop small towns by taking advantage of the adventure of riding a trail like the GAP.”
Kahley said the Progress Fund runs the Trail Town Program, which has “transformed the future of a number of small towns in southwestern Pennsylvania.”
He said cyclists who ride the trail typically spend $140 a night per person when they stay overnight at one of the communities “and they also drop other money on meals and shopping in stores. For those communities it’s a nice economic stimulus.”
He said the Progress Fund recently won a major Place Making award from the Urban Land Institute for funding nine separate investments in West Newton (population 2,200), which is 35 miles from Pittsburgh.
“People don’t just want to stay overnight in these little towns,” he said. “They have become cool places to hang out and even move to for hipsters and others. The real estate in those communities has become more valuable because of that. For some buyers and developers, trails are the new golf courses. And they are a lot easier to build and maintain, too.”
In Wenatchee, Wash. (population 35,000), Shannon Kraft, marketing coordinator for the Coldwell Banker Levigne office, called the Apple Capital Loop Trail a “tremendous asset to our valley.
“Thousands of people who live here love it because it gives them a great place to walk, run, bike and skate. We also get lots of visitors who use it.” Wenatchee is about 120 miles from Seattle on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in the heart of the state’s applegrowing region.
She said the asphalt trail, which totals nearly 18 miles with recent extensions, goes through downtown Wenatchee and then loops out into the countryside along the Columbia and Wenatchee rivers. Parks along the trail are often filled with picnickers, walkers, Frisbee players, yoga classes and other recreational users.
She said many sellers use their locations near the trail to market their homes.
“Some people may not want to live close to the trail because it brings more people, but others think proximity to the path is a great thing,” she said. “People say one of the reasons they moved here is because of the trail.”
Kraft said business has boomed along the trail in recent years too, noting the conversion of an old fruit warehouse into a successful restaurant. In addition, she said the Pybus Public Market — which she described as a smaller version of Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market — opened a few years back in a former steel manufacturing plant near the trail on North Worthen Street and within a stone’s throw of Riverside Park on the Columbia River.
“The market has been a big hit, offering everything from produce and meat — including pheasant, duck and frogs legs — works by artists, music and food. It’s now considered one of the best public markets in the Northwest and people can walk or bike to it on the trail.”