An effort to expand a multi-use rail-to-trail network throughout the Industrial Heartland is drawing on the expertise and work of faculty at the West Virginia University Health Research Center.
In 2016-2017, the Center evaluated the business impact of the Mon River Trails System, a network of 48 miles of trails in north central West Virginia. Their unique findings were featured in a recent feasibility study and publicity video by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition.
“Unlike many previously studied trail systems, the Mon River Trails System is more of a transportation and recreation hub for local residents than it is a tourism destination,” said Christiaan Abildso, an assistant professor in the WVU School of Public Health and program director in the Heath Research Center. “Businesses located along the trail expressed what a draw it is in recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent.”
The project, funded by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, was part of a larger economic-impact study for the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition. The Coalition –which aims to establish a 1,500-mile network of trails across 51 counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York – partnered with WVU to better understand the potential impact of the trail in the communities through which it will pass.
Abildso’s study focused on evaluating businesses along the trail in Morgantown, many of which are providers of professional services, such as law firms, that are not primarily impacted by direct expenditures of trail users. However, when combined with lodging, retail and food-service businesses in the same area, these businesses and the trail create a mutually beneficial environment – a “mixed-use, trail-oriented” development.
“Rather than hope these mutually beneficial businesses spring up, economic development personnel should be dedicated to expanding trailside businesses in a logical manner to serve trail users, similar to what you’d see at a shopping mall or business park,” Abildso said.
Through a series of interviews, focus groups and surveys and a review of two decades of county assessor records, Abildso’s team found a number of direct and indirect benefits of the trails and useful lessons learned for other trail systems.
“We saw important social benefits to the community and property value increases that far outpaced countywide increases,” Abildso said. “Other trail systems should plan for this. It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ trailside property values will increase.”
Trail-oriented development, much like urban redevelopment, can be a double-edged sword, however. There are economic benefits to localities and businesses, but increased demand can drive up retail rents and property prices to the point of becoming a financial barrier, especially for small businesses. Keeping trailside property values affordable requires collaborative public-private planning, creative funding and economic development incentives from the outset.
Feedback from existing businesses revealed several important improvements and maintenance projects that need to occur to increase usage of the trail. Examples include events on the trail in collaboration with the local businesses and using tax instruments such as Tax Increment Financing or Community Enhancement Districts to fund ongoing maintenance, lighting or other enhancements.
For Monongalia County, Abildso says a key opportunity to facilitate ongoing, positive collaboration is for trailside businesses to serve on the Mon River Trails Conservancy Board or on a business subcommittee of the Board. Since completing the study, Abildso has agreed to serve on the Board himself.
“This is a research-to-service connection,” Abildso said. “In the world of program evaluation, one of the key standards is ‘utility’ or ensuring your evaluation work is used. I hope to use this work by serving on the Board and helping local residents and businesses realize what an asset this is and commit to making it as great as it can be.”
A more detailed report of the business-impact study can be found on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website.
The Health Research Center provides an environment and infrastructure for WVU faculty with varied interests and expertise to collaborate and develop projects that promote the overall quality of life for West Virginians. It is located in the School of Public Health at the WVU Health Sciences Center.
This project is one example of moving WV Forward. By identifying this trail system as a unique, regional asset and following a data-driven approach that includes research and interviews among businesses directly and indirectly impacted by the trail, this project can lead to more distinguished opportunities for development. The more ways local communities capitalize on local resources like recreational features, the more they can diversify their economies and find their special niche for growth.