Walkabout: South Siders want welcome mat out for coming cyclists
When the last mile of the Great Allegheny Passage opens this summer, bicyclists will have an unbroken trail between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.
Odds are the connection now under construction between Homestead and the South Side will bring an increasing stream of visitors from all points east into the city.
A promotional effort called Trail Town South Side Pittsburgh formed in January when Jonathan Growall, a real estate agent, teamed with Kim Collins, president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, in planning to enhance the experiences of cycling tourists and help South Side businesses reap economic rewards.
This is a big opportunity for the South Side to nurture a daytime economy that has long been overshadowed by weekend drinking revelries, which some stakeholders think have brought the neighborhood to or near the tipping point.
"I have nothing against the nighttime economy, but we're more than that," Mr. Growall said. "I want to help people who come here for a day [to] experience the city I have experienced."
Mr. Growall grew up in Pittsburgh, left and came back 10 years ago. He settled on the South Side in part because proximity to the trail gave him quick and safe access to everywhere he wanted to go as a practical cyclist.
In three weeks, he and Ms. Collins have talked to representatives of the city, BikePGH, Friends of the Riverfront and South Side businesses that sell and rent bicycles and other outdoor supplies. They intend to contact a fuller range of businesses in educational outreach.
"If I'm a waitress at Mallorca," Ms. Collins said, using the Spanish restaurant as a random example, "it would be smart for me to know about the trails when customers ask."
The Hot Metal Bridge is the junction of the Great Allegheny Passage and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. The passage goes across the bridge; the heritage trail continues along the South Side's waterfront to Station Square, with links to Point State Park and the North Side.
Trail Town South Side organizers have requested guidance from Friends of the Riverfront in establishing tourist information kiosks. They have put out a call on Facebook for artists and designers to submit concept drawings.
"We're not going to fund it, but we are happy to lead them along the path to developing this," said Jeff McCauley, stewardship coordinator for Friends of the Riverfront. "It's good that they're trying to promote trail use and the business district. As the [Great Allegheny Passage] opens there's going to be a lot more recreational bikers who may not have been around Pittsburgh, so informational boards would be very beneficial."
Trail Town is in partnership with the Trail Town umbrella organization based in Greensburg.
Will Prince, its program coordinator, said local initiatives began in 2001 to tap into the Great Allegheny Passage's trail market. In 2007, the Progress Fund, a nonprofit that finances tourism-related businesses, established specific programming in West Newton, Connellsville, Ohiopyle, Confluence, Rockwood and Meyersdale in southwest Pennsylvania, expanding to the Maryland communities of Frostburg and Cumberland in 2009.
As a result, signage, kiosks, service networking and amenities in trail towns have improved, Mr. Prince said. Trail Town has also established bike racks near trail heads, given business loans to B&Bs, bike shops and restaurant pubs and made grants for public art.
Trail Town conducted a trail user and business survey in 2011-12 and learned that half the trail users are between 45 and 64 years old, a consistent demographic over several years. This might seem surprising given that so many people bicycling in the city are young, but a long trip on the Great Allegheny Passage is an expendable income decision, Mr. Prince said.
Of those who reported staying overnight, 82 percent spent two or more nights. The average overnight stay put $114 per cyclist into the trail towns' economies.
Mr. Prince said 22 percent of trail users are on it for the first time and that the estimated 800,000 trips annually will become a million in a few years.
Businesses along the trail's small towns reported that 30 percent of their gross revenues are attributable to the trail. Half of the businesses that are expanding cited the trail as the catalyst.
Mr. Growall said he hopes Trail Town can be an engine for that kind of growth in the city.
"This is the dream of a modern Pittsburgh," he said, "and it's alive and well in the South Side."
First Published February 5, 2013 12:00 am