Teaming up for success

Bicycle, walking and water trails are an economic draw to the Oil Region, providing a path for tourism and businesses to flourish.

“We know as the Oil Region Alliance that outdoor recreation is not going to solve our economic problems, but it is a piece,” said Kim Harris, the outdoor recreation project manager for the Alliance.

Harris said a 2013 economic impact study “showed over $6 million in direct impact to our community.”

That study was conducted by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and surveyed users of the trails ranging from Titusville to Parker. The survey concluded that an estimated 158,507 annual users visit the combined trails.

“Since 2013 we know that there has been increased usership of our trails,” Harris said. “It really went up drastically.”

Harris said trail users have increased so much, potentially doubling, that parking lots along trails are becoming a limited commodity.

“We’ve been working pretty closely with the Allegheny Trails association,” Harris said. “They would like to expand parking down at the Rockland tunnel.”

The various trails “all bring money into the region,” Harris said. “Outdoor recreation is part of the economic development of the region. It brings users from Ohio and the New York area and from all across Pennsylvania. Those folks are coming into the area and spending money,” Harris added.

Harris said she estimates there has been a 100% increase of “trail friendly businesses” in the past 15 years.

“They are looking out for what the trail users would want,” Harris said. “They are opening their arms and saying come on in, we welcome you. People are coming to use the resources and they are staying overnight,” she added.

Trails have helped businesses

Emily Aubele opened up the Peddlers & Paddlers Inn in Franklin in January 2019. She said she wanted to “reach out to the business community and the recreational community,” with her bed and breakfast.

“When we looked at the markets in Franklin that’s what you have, people coming in for business and people coming in for recreation,” said Aubele, who co-owns the inn with Tammy Dulaney.

She said business has been “fantastic…it’s exceeded our expectations actually.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak and trip cancellations, Aubele said the Inn was fortunate to house doctors and nurses who were working long stretches at UPMC Northwest.

The bed and breakfast has returned to housing visitors, and Aubele said business has been steady.

“People are giving up the longer and more expensive vacations for shorter and more local trips, so we have had people coming from four or five hours away at the most and they are coming up to have a nice and relaxing break,” Aubele said.

“The opportunity for outdoor, socially distanced activities is just abundant,” she said. “And they are rediscovering simplicity, which I think is very refreshing for people.”

“When I first moved here, one thing I noticed was, man we have all this outdoor and natural beauty and we really don’t have a whole lot of outfitters,” said Aubele, who moved to the area 15 years ago.

Aubele said that now “people are doing programs and activities, and it’s really a draw. Especially to those urban areas that are about two hours away, it’s really the perfect getaway.”

“I think it (the trails) put us on the map with a large population of enthusiasts,” Aubele said. “That is an incredibly large and well networked community of people.”

Aubele said that the recreational draw has lead to increases in other opportunities in the area.

“Folks come up here and they are like ‘wow, we came up for the bike trail but, there’s lots of great shops and towns,” she said.

“I just want to reinforce how important it is that all of these enterprises are working together and collaborating to create win-wins. That is the only way we are going to get through this and whatever comes next,” Aubele said. “And I saw that resoundingly from the community…its really been inspiring.”

After hitting the trails and shopping, Aubele said there is an impressive array of local restaurants where visitors can eat.

“The bottom line is the brewery would not be here without the trail,” said David Ballard, a managing partner at Trails to Ales Brewery in Franklin.

Ballard said the brewery came to fruition after a series of events and a collaboration of trail running friends. All the pieces came together to open up Trails to Ales Brewery in June 2017.

“There were four of us who ran on the trail for years and we still do,” said Ballard, who has always lived in Franklin. “There is no doubt we get business from the trails,” he said.

“We get a significant amount of people coming to the brewery after either being on the bike trail or on the river,” Ballard added. “That’s very common to see people coming in there on their bikes and coming in with their helmets.”

Appealing to outdoor recreation enthusiasts has been a benefit to the brewery, Ballard said.

“I’ve watched that bike trail explode in the last five years,” he said. “It’s definitely had an impact on (the brewery) as well. And I would like to think we’ve had an impact on (visitors) as well, bringing people into the brewery.”

“So far this year on our Google site we’ve had over 1,000 people get directions to our brewery,” Ballard said. “We have been blessed, we exceeded our initial expectations substantially.”

Ballard says he plans to “keep it growing in Franklin.”

“We just ordered a new canning line because we’ve been doing so many cans of beer,” Ballard said. “We hope at some time to get a second location opened up and we have a lot of our beer out in the local distributors.”

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Ballard said the restaurant and brewery are doing fine thanks to “tremendous support from locals, tremendous support from the town.”

Along with bicycles, seeing kayaks strapped to car roofs in the parking lot outside the brewery isn’t an uncommon sight either, Ballard said.

“I’ve had people who kayak everywhere and they have said this is one of the nicest creeks they have been on,” said Greg Kiser, owner of Frenchcreek Kayaks.

“I meet a lot of cool people doing this,” said Kiser, who has been operating his kayak and canoe trip business for the past five years.

He said he’s had people from across the country and world visit his Utica based business.

“Alejandro Villanueva (visited) a few years ago from the Steelers. You never know who is going to show up here on French Creek,” Kiser said.

Kiser said his business is having one of its best years yet.

“A lot of new people this year, a lot of regulars from years past, but a lot of new people,” said Kiser.

He said one of the reasons might be because “they’re tired of being cooped up.”

“It’s just one of the outdoor activities they feel safe doing I guess,” Kiser said.

“The creek levels have been pretty good this year too,” he added.

Kiser said last year he “never put anyone on the water until July 15th due to heavy rains causing high water levels.

Kiser has lived along French Creek for the past 35 years and said he has an “intimate knowledge of the creek.”

Over that time, Kiser said the stream has become a destination as one of the most pristine and biodiverse waterways “this side of the Mississippi.”

“I think its mostly due to the lack of industry on this creek,” he said.