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Western Maryland Rail Trail an economic boost to county

March 08, 2007|by TOM RIFORD

Special to The Daily Mail

Washington County has all or part of five national parks, eight state parks, and more than 30 county and city parks. These parks create positive local economic impact for our residents.

According to recent statistics, the Antietam National Battlefield Park creates more than $10 million of local economic impact in Washington County annually, the C&O Canal National Historical Park creates more than $9 million of local economic impact in our county, and five state parks that make up the South Mountain Recreation Area create more than $3.5 million in local economic impact.

Impact of parks

Many people don't realize the wonderful local economic impact of parks. Often the positive impact goes unnoticed, while the community benefits from investment and visitors' spending, and also from the jobs maintained and created.

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The State of Maryland's DLLR reports that more than 5,900 people work in the tourism industry in Washington County (the Leisure and Hospitality classification), or about 9 percent of our work force.

Hidden gem

One state park facility in western Washington County is a true hidden economic gem. The Western Maryland Rail Trail recently was evaluated by an independent organization, studying economic impact.

The Urban Research and Development Corporation of Bethlehem, Pa., found that the rail trail created more than $2.9 million in annual gross direct spending from approximately 95,000 user visits.

Just as all of our parks are important for our economy, as well as being great amenities for residents, the Western Maryland Rail Trail is very important for our county. Hancock greatly benefits from the Western Maryland Rail Trail, and I have heard from both the mayor and town manager, and also members of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce, as to how important the Western Maryland Rail Trail is for Hancock.

The new impact study was released at the end of December, and said some important things about the 23-mile long rail trail.

"The WMRT is a level asphalt trail following the railroad bed right-of-way from Big Pool Junction to Pearre Station. The trail traverses an area that is rural and is bordered by canopies of trees and bushes, providing natural beauty for the rail user.

"The length, asphalt surface and level gradient make the rail trail a most unique trail experience. Few trails embracing these characteristics currently exist in the United States, giving the WMRT a 'step above others.'"

I recall a bike group from Virginia calling this wonderful resource a "cathedral in the trees," for the rail trail is truly a great place to hike, bike and rollerblade.

Rail trail study

The study really looked at the typical user, and also researched where the users of the rail trail came from. At least 40 percent of WMRT user gross expenditures come from non-Maryland residents. Thirty-seven percent of WMRT user expenditures come from residents of Pennsylvania, West Virginia or Virginia. Approximately 3 percent of gross spending comes from users living outside the four-state region. These are significant statistics.

What's important to note, the rail trail is embarking on a new expansion. I have been informed that the WMRT will be extended another 4.5-miles, to Little Orleans. This expansion is already funded in the state budget.

This is great news, and a testimony to the hard work that a lot of people have done. The committee working on it includes community and business leaders, and state and federal officials. I understand that once that extension is completed, that the rail trail will be continuing on over bridges and tunnels, through parts of West Virginia, until it is fully completed.

As the Western Maryland Rail Trail grows, it will create more and more positive economic impact for Hancock and Washington County. Hotels, restaurants, stores, and other businesses benefitting from the increased tourism. Imagine: last year there were almost 100,000 users of the trail, enjoying our county - and telling their friends about how great the Western Maryland Rail Trail truly is.

New Web site

I understand that a new Web site is being finished, which will not only continue to market the rail trail, but also help tell the story of its expansion.

The economic impact report is available on the Hancock Chamber of Commerce's Web site at www.hancockmd.com/URDCImpactStudy.htm.

I know that bikers and hikers love our county. This has been echoed in places like trails.com, which includes Washington County bike routes which are listed as some of the top trails in the country. Our new bicycle tours map and brochure is wildly successful, and we're putting the whole thing on the CVB's Web site plus the new map and brochure has been flying out the door so quickly that soon we'll have to make a second printing!

Big Slackwater

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