Trails and Revitalization: A Study of the Economics Associated with Public Trails
This thesis demonstrates that trails can generate revenue and should help trail builders and public land planners understand trail users as catalysts in a revitalization effort.
Presented at the 2006 National Trails Symposium in the Quad Cities of IA and IL
By Robert J. Schoutens
The inspiration surrounding the choice of this topic for an MBA thesis is related to the potential of death if commuting by bicycle. Chester County, Pennsylvania has many narrow roads, and few miles of trails. Suburban sprawl contributes to the increase of traffic on these roadways as a detriment to bicyclists and other recreational activities. A trail as an answer to the traffic and safety issues is costly and difficult to justify because there is little to no data available that shows economic benefit.
The use of a trail can provide an alternate means of transportation as well as providing the community with green space. In addition to its location and direction, a trail can provide links to neighboring communities and businesses, and contributes to the economic revitalization of these areas. This accentuates the importance for co-operation between business, government and society.
Governments play an important role in the creation of laws surrounding property and taxation. The economics that surround a trail are important because the land that is appropriated for public use creates a loss of collected taxes, passing the tax burden to society. (The Trust for Public Land, 1999, p. 6) Additionally, a trail can provide financial opportunities for businesses, as well as increased property values for surrounding residential areas, which can offset the tax burden and catalyze local economies. (Lerner and Poole, 2000, p.18; United States National Parks Service, 1995, p.1-5)
Suburban sprawl contributes to the vitalization of new housing areas, as well as the de-vitalization of established housing areas. The significance of sprawl as it pertains to this paper is that the shift of population represents a shift in economies such that the population carries economic benefits, and liabilities, to where the people migrate. The direction of the shift in economies will dictate whether or not an established or developing area thrives or deteriorates.
By providing a trail that attracts residential and business investment, local governments should be able to collect additional tax revenues without making the difficult choice of raising tax rates. Furthermore, in an area that has limited trails, like Chester County, trail implementation should attract residents, businesses and trail users from outside the area. Trails can provide an increase in the number of visitors that directly impacts the local economies. The increase in visitors consequently increases the likelihood of money spent in that location. This is where patronage volume and subsequent revenue can be increased through trail promotion. The attraction of people to an area (potential customers) in turn increases the visibility of local businesses and communities, allowing opportunities for businesses to sponsor events while gaining business exposure.
It becomes evident through the literature and discussions with noted experts that there is a need for data on the efficacy of trails as a mechanism of revitalization.
Because there are only a few available studies illustrating the connection between trails and the potential financial impacts on communities with respect to revitalization, it was necessary to conduct a pilot survey to demonstrate current viewpoints, spending habits, and to establish new data associated with trail economics.
The Manayunk pilot survey was a single day, random study of the business owners, employees, residents and visitors to downtown Manayunk. The pilot survey was modeled after a prior survey of residents along the Mohawk-Hudson Trail - which parallels the Mohawk River from Schenectady, New York to Albany, New York; with an adjustment made to the focus towards direct financial impact from trail use. (Feeney, 1997)
No data was identified that illustrates the Schuylkill River Trail as a vehicle to aid in the revitalization of Manayunk. Additionally, because Manayunk has undergone economic growth, the opportunity to survey the opinions of trail users and businesses became paramount to form a historical example for other communities where a trail is planned. The Manayunk pilot survey demonstrated that regardless of how the Schuylkill River Trail acted as a revitalization tool for Manayunk, it still represents a significant influx of revenue to the local businesses. Additionally, it was identified that the utility of the trail would increase if the signage for it were more visible. This lack of signage represents a gap that has a direct effect on the link between trail and revitalization as shown in the Manayunk survey.
The Manayunk Survey discussed in this thesis has revealed the spending amounts as well as the percentage of those who spend money. Most trail users (53.3%) spend money "frequently" when they use the Schuylkill River Trail. Most trail users (73.4%) spend thirty dollars or less per visit. Through the research of Morris et al., the Schuylkill River Trail has 250,000 visits per year. (Morris et al., 2000, p.7) It is estimated that the trail impact in Manayunk generates business revenue in excess of $2.5 million dollars annually. This represents an average of $15.05 per trail user within the 73.4% spending range, or an average of $10.30 per trail user. In its current state, the Schuylkill River Trail has generated substantial money for neighboring businesses despite the lack of promotion of the trail.
The results of the Manayunk Survey, along with other surveys, can be extrapolated to show the national financial impact of trails. This impact is between $411 million and $953 million based upon the number of trails in the United States as reported by the American Trails and Dirt World websites, respectively. These estimates illustrate the potential revenue that trails provide local businesses, local economies and tax revenue for governments. Because of this, it becomes apparent that all existing trails should be marketed and signage made visible to increase trail users such that the trail, as a revenue stream, is reinforced.
Throughout the literature that was uncovered for this thesis, only a few illustrated the link between trail use and trail user economics or a trail as a revitalization tool. According to the data collected from the Manyunk survey, this thesis demonstrates that trails can generate revenue and should help trail builders and public land planners understand trail users as catalysts in a revitalization effort. Similar to the shift in economics that occurs with sprawl, so is the impact of trail users who bring money with them while enjoying recreation. It is imperative to provide the trail user with the opportunity to spend money. Economic revitalization takes time and should be a long-term goal for the local area. Trail users should be viewed as customers and trails should be viewed as the vehicle to attract the customer to an area to help make revitalization a reality.
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Updated March 4, 2018