Bike shop owner Floyd Macheska is emphatic about how important construction of the Great Allegheny Passage has been to West Newton and to his business.
"The trail brought this town back to life," he said.
Mr. Macheska estimated that about 60 percent of the customers at his West Newton Bike Shop come through the door because of the nearby hiking and cycling trail. His business on Main Street is about a block from the rails-to-trails route that links Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.
The Great Allegheny Passage is the longest and best known of southwestern Pennsylvania's recreational trails. Passing through Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties, the 150-mile-long trail connects to the C&O Canal Towpath at Cumberland.
It is part of a growing regional system that has forged new links among communities and that supporters say offers new economic opportunities.
Restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, ice cream shops and other tourism-related businesses have opened or prospered along trail routes. Confluence, for example, has become a busy stopping point for riders and walkers looking for a meal or a bed for the night on their way to or from Pittsburgh. The borough is named for its location at the spot in Somerset County where the Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek join the Youghiogheny River.
But it is not only trailside communities that have benefited from the conversion of old railroad rights of way to recreational uses.
As its name suggests, the Butler-Freeport Community Trail links those two communities via a mostly shady, gently graded path that is open to pedestrians and nonmotorized vehicles. The trail begins near the Allegheny River and snakes northwest through the Buffalo Creek Gorge. Its route through Butler and Armstrong counties goes past several villages, including Sarver, Cabot and Herman, as well as suburban neighborhoods and working farms. The trail ends just outside the city of Butler.
The trail has brought new customers to shops and stores in Freeport's compact downtown, according to Mary Bowlin, president of the Allegheny Valley Chamber of Commerce. New signs are being erected at the Freeport trailhead and at different points in town to let visitors know what services and products are available.
Ms. Bowlin, who lives in Freeport, is also president of her community's booster organization, called the Freeport Renaissance Association. "We see bicyclists coming to town all the time," she said. "They'll stop for a meal or to shop in some of our stores."
At least one local business, Wolfie's Pizza, delivers its products to cyclists or walkers picnicking at the borough's Riverside Park, she said.
"I saw quite a lot of bikers in town over the weekend," Marce Urbanski said recently. She is the operator of The Canvas art and gift store on Freeport's Fifth Street. "I think many of them were pleasantly surprised to see how Freeport was growing," she said.
While it was unlikely that cyclists and hikers would buy a print or painting by one of the 36 artists who show their work at The Canvas, Ms. Urbanski said travelers are likely to return later if they enjoyed their experience in town.
At the other end of the Butler-to-Freeport trail, the city of Butler has been making changes to its streetscape as more and more trail riders have been exploring its downtown, Chelynne Curci said. She is Main Street manager for the nonprofit development organization called Butler Downtown.
Those improvements have been based on recommendations from the city's Bicycle Advisory Commission. The changes include new signs to direct cyclists through the city and past community attractions, including the Saturday farmers market and Pullman, Butler Memorial and Alameda parks. Crews have painted "sharrow" marks on many city streets to remind drivers to share the road with bicyclists, Ms. Curci said. New bike racks are in place downtown.
Each Friday at 6 p.m., riders meet at the city parking lot in the 200 block of North Main Street for a ride around the community and dinner at a local restaurant.
"These events offer a great way for beginners to get used to riding in the city," Ms. Curci said.
More bicycle-friendly improvements are coming. Completion later this month of a new bridge will make it easier to get from the trail into downtown Butler.
"It's a beautiful trail, and it offers great recreation opportunities both for people who live here and for visitors," said Jack Cohen, executive director of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau. "It's a good way to show off our communities."
While many of the businesses that now benefit from recreational trails existed before the rails-to-trails projects, some ventures would not exist without the hiking and biking routes.
Bridge to business
Two new bridges along the Montour Trail made it possible for two couples to open The Tandem Connection in Cecil. The new business offers bike rentals, sales, storage and repairs as well as snacks and drinks for riders at Milepost 27 along the trail.
When completed, the Montour Trail will run 46 miles from Coraopolis to Clairton, where it will link to the Great Allegheny Passage via the on-street Steel Valley Trail.
The Tandem Connection operates seven days a week during the warmer months in a 100-year-old renovated coal company store on Georgetown Road. Partners in the business are Seth and Laurie Fosmire of Houston, Pa., and Dave and Lori Poe of South Fayette.
"People seem excited that we are here," Mr. Poe said. "They agree this section of the trail always needed something like this."
The business became viable after the nonprofit Montour Trail Council completed two bridges last summer that carry the trail over Georgetown and Morganza roads.
The new business is seeing both local and long-distance riders. Last spring, a 6-mile spur route was completed that connects the Montour Trail directly to Pittsburgh International Airport.
"Riding from Pittsburgh to Washington is on the 'bucket list' for a lot of people," Mr. Poe said. "They'll start at the airport and bike to Cumberland -- or over to Weirton."
Riders on the Montour Trail can switch to the Panhandle Trail near McDonald for a ride west into West Virginia.
That kind of "connectivity" is at the heart of trail planning, supporters of the regional network say. That point was made again last month when municipal officials unveiled plans for on-road trail links between Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Heritage Trail and the Coraopolis end of the Montour Trail.
That share-the-road route, part of a planned Ohio River Trail, would pass through McKees Rocks, Stowe and Neville. Plans call for pedestrian and cycling loops within those communities that people can use for shopping, commuting and recreation.
Bicycling advocate Mary Shaw predicted that those suburban communities could receive the same kind of boost in economic activity from a trails project that has resulted in towns along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184.