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Up and Down, and Up again: How one trail is driving the economic transformation of a region

By Mickey McGlasson, Senior Consultant, Analytics

The southwestern Pennsylvania and western Maryland region (which I am happy to call home) might well be described as a land of ups and downs. Its natural landscape rolls across the ridges and valleys of north central Appalachia. Its economic history, likewise, has seen peaks and valleys of uncommon extent. Once a great hub of wealth, driven by resource extraction and transportation corridors (both made possible by that same aforementioned landscape), it has more recently seen decades of decline in population and economic activity.

That remains true even in Pittsburgh — the largest city and urban center of the region — despite glimpses of economic revitalization, past and present, and a wider trend towards urbanization through the US. According to the recently released 2020 Census data, the city is still declining in population, much like many other areas in the post-industrial northeast, including its regional neighbor, Cumberland, Maryland. Though the issues driving the decline may seem too big and intractable to be meaningfully addressed with subtle interventions, a 150-mile trail connecting Pittsburgh and Cumberland, comprised mostly of crushed limestone set atop former railroad routes, simply begs to disagree.

Map of the GAP

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a regional asset many decades in the making. Despite its fundamentally modest infrastructure, it was only made possible by the dedicated work of many local supporters. And that work has paid dividends. Over the last year, members of our team have had the great privilege of working with the GAP Conservancy and its partners to study the economic impacts of the GAP. Our findings were released earlier this month, and they capture the story of an incredible economic asset.

Through our research, we created an economic impact model based on surveys and interviews with business owners, municipal officials, and local residents to estimate that the GAP provided $121 million in annual economic impact in 2019, a number that will likely continue to grow in the future and which likely already exceeds, in a single year, the total cost of physical investment that was required to create the trail in the first place. That is, as our report suggests, a phenomenal return on investment.

Through that impact, we estimate that the GAP provides nearly 1,400 jobs in the region. Public economic data reinforces this story: despite sharp declines in population, the area immediately surrounding the GAP saw far higher rates of growth in specific industries associated with recreational tourism (e.g., Food and Accommodations) than did the region at large. It’s no surprise talking to business owners, especially among the dozens of newly established businesses that populate GAP communities, where those jobs are coming from.

We also find that the GAP is associated with increased property values, an influx of local tax revenue, and other spending on goods and services related to trail use, like sales and rentals of cycling and outdoor recreational equipment.

It may seem surprising that an infrastructure feat that, through most of its course, is little more advanced than a typical asphalt driveway can have such an outsized impact on the local economy, but for people who have intimate experience with the GAP, it is entirely unsurprising. Several of our team members have had the pleasure of enjoying the GAP firsthand, and that experience made it easy to connect the positive findings in our research to the experience of the trail community, full of diverse and vibrant businesses and multitudinous trail enthusiasts, local and distant.

All of that said, the trail community faces challenges. Businesses in the area were hit especially hard during the Covid-19 crisis, despite significant increases in trail use during 2020, and a 150-mile trail requires an incredible amount of coordination, not to mention funding, to maintain. The majority of stakeholders with whom we spoke, however, remain resoundingly optimistic about the GAP.

While it’s unclear what the future holds for the region — if it will buck the trends of decline that have shaped its more recent past, if it will continue to reorient its economy away from the industrial activity that once brought it wealth — there’s no doubt that the GAP will play a significant role in that future, and likely a truly catalytic one.

Read our report here if you would like to learn more about the economic impacts that the GAP has had in its region, and while you’re there, consider supporting the important work of the GAP Conservancy.


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