FAQ: Are business plans for trails of any value?

Choosing between a business plan, an economic study, or a feasibility study

by American Trails Staff

February 06, 2013

The Mississippi River Trail in Algiers Point, New Orleans, with a view of the Mississippi River and the French Quarter, New Orleans skyline; photo by Dominic

A question from Ontario, Canada about whether or not business plans for public trails are of any value. A more basic question is also being asked to clarify the differences between a business plan, a strategic plan and a financial plan.

If this issue is how to maximize and document the economic benefits of a trail, there are many economic studies to look at.

If it's an issue of how to pay for the trail, who will support it, how it will be maintained over decades, then a feasibility study may be the way to address the costs.

Business plans

A business plan is a written document that describes in detail how a business, usually a new one, is going to achieve its goals. A business plan lays out a written plan from a marketing, financial and operational viewpoint.

In 2015, the National Park Service (NPS) published the Appalachian National Scenic Trail 2015 Business Plan. The purpose of business planning in the National Park Service is to improve the ability of parks and programs to more clearly communicate their financial and operational status to principal stakeholders. A business plan answers such questions as: How does the park operate? What are its priorities over the next five years? How will it allocate resources to achieve its goals? The business planning process accomplishes three main tasks. First, it presents a clear, detailed picture of the state of operations and priorities. Second, it provides analysis of funding sources and expenditures. Third, it outlines financial projections and specific strategies to marshal resources and direct them toward high-priority operational needs. As a result, parks can more clearly communicate their financial situation to external audiences. Completing the business plan process not only enables the park to produce a powerful communication tool, but also provides management with baseline financial and operational knowledge for future decision making.

In 2005, the County of Lanark in Ontario, Canada prepared a Recreational Trails Business Plan to address the opportunities and challenges of trail networks. Many trails groups, local businesses, health organizations and others indicated their readiness to actively participate in the development, maintenance and promotion of trails. The County of Lanark recently completed its community vision and corporate strategic planning process. The values and priorities laid out in this landmark document are similar to those found in the Business Plan for Recreational Trails. This confluence strengthens a commitment to develop trails, and is an opportunity. The mandate of the County of Lanark is broad, often stretching the tax dollar thin. The challenge is to seize the opportunities afforded by trails in a responsible and cost-effective manner.

Economic studies

Economics can be defined in a few different ways. It's the study of scarcity, the study of how people use resources and respond to incentives, or the study of decision-making. It often involves topics like wealth and finance, but it's not all about money.

Trails and their users generate substantial economic benefits. With minimal research, a large amount of case studies and economic impact statements are available for review and analysis. The economic impacts of comprehensive trail systems exemplifies the proven assertion that trails bring new business and economic life to cities, towns, and communities. The Business of Trails: A Compilation of Economic Benefits, an article by Terry Eastin, Executive Director of the Mississippi River Trail, Inc. is available in our resource library, as well as many articles on economic studies throughout the nation. Terry's article is an analysis of studies and research on the economic benefits of trails: tourism, events, healthcare savings, and community development.


Feasibility studies

A feasibility study is an analysis and evaluation of a proposed project to determine if it (1) is technically feasible, (2) is feasible within the estimated cost, and (3) will be profitable. Feasibility studies are almost always conducted where large sums are at stake.

In 2006 the Village of Hoosick Falls River Access Group, contracted for a feasibility study for a greenway along the Hoosic River in the Village of Hoosick Falls, NY, with possible extensions into the Town of Hoosick. The main objective was to collect information that would allow the River Access Group to determine what sort of pathway would best satisfy the needs of the community. Interviews with influential community leaders were conducted to ascertain community opinions and desires regarding a greenway. Alternative pathway designs and features were also researched in order to find an appropriate fit for the community. The report provides both suggestions for the final pathway as well as resources for future greenway development undertaken by the River Access Group. Ultimately, the greenway will provide both recreational and aesthetic access to the Hoosic River.

You can search hundreds of articles, studies, and resources on every aspect of trails and greenways in our Resource Library.

Related Resources