In Northern Pennsylvania, 50 state game lands, 29 state parks, 8 state forests, and one National Forest combine to form an ultimate outdoor destination – the Pennsylvania Wilds. Besides being a haven of outdoor recreation, what else do the 12 counties comprising the PA Wilds have in common? They’re considered coal-impacted, and have felt the effects of America’s changing energy production. Though beautiful, the rugged landscape also presents issues with broadband development, transportation infrastructure, and other activities essential to economic growth. To help these communities leverage the state’s greatest concentration of public land, Governor Ed Rendell launched the Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative in 2003. Not long after, ARC began a partnership with the initiative, investing in several trails and eventually supporting the Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship (PA Wilds Center).
The PA Wilds Center was founded in 2013. The regional non-profit’s mission is to integrate conservation and economic development to strengthen and inspire communities in the PA Wilds. In 2017, they received a $500,000 ARC POWER investment to develop a regional marketing strategy tied to their growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. The PA Wilds campaign promoted outdoor experiences and explored the region’s creative talent, makers and hospitality through the Wilds Cooperative of PA. The success of this strategy, and its related tech investments, ultimately helped them attract additional investors to sustain the effort past their ARC grant, including a Google Ad grant that provides up to $120,000 a year in ad credits to continue to help build digital and physical foot traffic to the region via pawilds.com.
“ARC is a foundational investor in the PA Wilds effort,” said PA Wilds Center Founder and CEO Tataboline Enos.
Investments in PA Wilds marketing during the grant period helped quadruple new users to pawilds.com and set a record $1.8 billion in annual visitor spending in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Additionally, through a public-private partnership lease with the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, PA Wilds Center is now operating gift shops, which sell regionally made products from small businesses at two state parks, provide visitor services, and expand market access for rural entrepreneurs in the Wilds Cooperative. The first gift shop has sold more than $1M in local products to date; the second is slated to open this summer at the PA Grand Canyon. Through their POWER grant, 189 new businesses and organizations have joined the Wilds Cooperative (WCO), while businesses in the PA Wilds rural value chain reported creating 44 full time and 88 part-time jobs.
On the Trail to Success
The PA Wilds website is a fantastic example of showcasing natural assets through user-friendly digital experiences and marketing. ARC funding has also supported the development of star assets in the PA Wilds, like the Trails at Jakes Rocks, a 45-mile mountain bike trail system in Warren County that provides riding opportunities for everyone from families to professional bikers.
Thirty-five percent of Warren County’s land mass is occupied by the Allegheny National Forest (ANF). While the forest always attracted hikers and campers, no mountain bike trail existed within three hours of the area. That changed in 2015-2017, when the Warren County Development Association (WCDA) received a total of $325,000 in ARC funding to construct 30 of the 45 miles of the Trails at Jakes Rocks.
The idea to create a bike trail originated in the community, through the Leadership Warren County program. The concept eventually evolved into a committee focused on creating non-motorized connection between ANF assets that would increase awareness, promote the region’s heritage and attract visitors to the area. With the help of key partners including the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers, University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and ANF, more than $900,000 from local foundations and corporations was raised for the project. Additional support from ARC helped bring the project closer to completion and, as of fall 2018, the trail has been used by approximately 15,000 riders and hikers, making it the forest’s most popular non-motorized trail system.
“ARC has been crucial to our ability to leverage both private and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania funding to allow the vision of the Trails at Jakes Rocks to come to fruition,” said Jim Decker, President/CEO of Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry. “The project, since its inception, epitomizes what is possible through engaging local, state and federal resources and agencies in a focused effort to create positive opportunities for individuals and communities. We cannot thank ARC enough for their continued support of this project.”
The PA Wilds is an excellent example of ARC’s investments in both sides of the outdoor tourism ecosystem: the natural assets themselves, like the trails at Jakes Rocks, as well as organizations that help communities and entrepreneurs create a sustainable tourism infrastructure around those assets, ultimately by attracting visitors, starting businesses and growing local economies.
“[ARC has] made critical investments to help us scale our mission in the landscape, and they have also invested alongside us, in projects like the Trails at Jakes Rocks, that help build our capacity and momentum as an outdoor recreation destination,” said Enos. “They really get this work — its challenges and its importance as an economic engine, to stabilizing rural population decline, and addressing workforce and quality of life issues. They have also built and incredible peer network across Appalachia that is so valuable to all of us practitioners in the field.”