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Tourism Rides High in the Southern Alleghenies

by Lynda McDaniel

For the better part of a century, mighty locomotive wheels have clanged and clanked across Pennsylvania's Southern Alleghenies as railroad cars laden with coal steamed through the mountainous terrain. Today, there's a new set of wheels crossing the landscape, though these make only a gentle whoosh. They belong to bicycles, thousands of them, and they're steering the region's economy in a new direction.

"If you think of the bicyclist only in terms of what that meant when you were a kid, forget it. That's not what this is about," says Richard A. Geist, representative in the Pennsylvania legislature for northern Blair County and an active cyclist. "It doesn't take long with a small spreadsheet to understand the potential this holds."

Geist's vision has been a driving force behind Cycle Southern Alleghenies (CSA), a year-round tourism effort that features 17 self-guided cycling routes traversing the six counties of the region—Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon, and Somerset. The routes range in length from 7 to 64 miles and are designed to appeal to all cyclists, from novices and weekend athletes to experts. The concept is not so much a new idea as an evolution of natural-resource use. The same mountains that have long produced coal now offer roads—from serene to serpentine—that delight bicyclists.

If vision sparks an idea, hard work makes it happen. CSA has been guided from idea to implementation by the Southern Alleghenies Regional Tourism Confederation (SARTC). This 39-member private/public advisory board is a coalition of convention and visitors bureaus, heritage preservation groups, and state heritage parks, and is a subcommittee of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission (SAPDC), a local development district. SARTC designated a task group, the Bicycle Advisory Group, which Geist chairs and which includes representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), cycling enthusiasts, and members of SAPDC and SARTC. The project was funded by grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, SARTC, and SAPDC. It was officially launched last September by Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge, an avid cyclist, during his annual Keystone Ride.

Looking back, it seems so logical, even inevitable, that bicycling would figure into this changing economy. In 1986, the Altoona Bicycle Club organized a one-day race. Two years later, the race was extended to two days and named "Tour de 'Toona," after the Tour de France. In 1990, Tour de 'Toona was sanctioned by the U.S. Cycling Federation and became the first tour in America to offer equal prize money to men and women. Today, with the demise of Tour DuPont, it ranks as the largest professional-amateur stage race in the United States. Professionals race for six days; amateurs for three. Tour promoters expect 850 to 1,000 riders this year, including 27 professional men's and 19 professional women's teams competing for a total of over $100,000.

Another stepping-stone was laid in 1992 when the Southern Alleghenies beat out 16 other American communities to host the U.S. Olympic cycling trials. They did it with the most valuable natural resource of all: people. Warm, friendly people willing to work for their community.

"When the riders left here, they said in an interview on ESPN how friendly and accommodating Altoona was," says Doris Mitchell, manager of travel development for SAPDC. "They were happy that not only was our terrain much like Barcelona [where the 1992 Summer Olympics were held] but that everyone was so hospitable and friendly. That's just human nature here—the hospitality is generous and genuine."

In particular, the Bicycle Advisory Group, whose members range from students to professionals, proved to be an invaluable and innovative resource. "They were wonderful," says Deborah Prosser, director of the marketing division of SAPDC. "Because they were our market, we could sit across from them and ask what we needed to do to sell this product to them. In addition, they mapped out their favorite places and experiences, told us the amenities they needed, and we listened closely. They are responsible for the effectiveness of all the print materials that we've produced as well as the Web site design and the way the site functions."

Year-Round Benefits

While short-term races and trials give temporary boosts to food, lodging, and retail sales, CSA provides consistent, year-round economic benefits. The demographics of biking are ideal for sustained growth; the tour program targets men and women 30 to 55 years old with annual incomes over $60,000. Market research into their needs has led to the development of bed-and-breakfast inns near the routes and bike concessionaires that offer rental, repair, and guide services. SAPDC is also providing start-up support to the entrepreneurs furnishing amenities such as food delivery, rescue services, and tour booking.

And the economic impact of CSA extends well beyond tourism. According to Edward Silvetti, executive director of SAPDC, quality-of-life and outdoor recreation opportunities are effective marketing tools for local industrial development corporations working to attract industry to the region. "As we gain notoriety on this front, it's going to help other efforts to encourage growth in our region," he adds. "If we could replicate CSA in other areas, we would be the most successful local development district in the history of economic development. The level of cooperation has been phenomenal."

CSA is also a welcome solution to a persistent marketing problem. "We were looking for a way to promote attractions that are off the beaten track, and for safety reasons, bicycle tour routes ideally are off the main roads," Prosser explains. "So now we have a natural way of getting visitors to these tucked-away treasures." A few of those destinations include lush state parks; the gardens of St. Francis Monastery, once the home of steel magnate Charles M. Schwab; and Fort Roberdeau, a national historic landmark dating back to 1778.

To develop safe and scenic routes, SAPDC contracted with the Engineering, Architecture and Design Services Group, an engineering firm with an office in Altoona. As a cycling enthusiast herself, project manager Karen Shutty knew firsthand which routes carried too much traffic to be included. She also had access to PennDOT information such as transportation planning data, traffic counts, and maps, which helped the group create exciting and accessible routes. Names such as Covered Bridge Scenic Journey, Horse and Buggy Tour, and Magical Mountain Mystery Tour hint at the adventures along the way. All routes pass through pastoral countryside unfolding from meadows carpeted in purple and yellow wildflowers into fertile farmland dotted with grazing sheep and soaring silos before stretching upward into steep mountain slopes. For riders on these roads, a sense of the long tradition of land well loved becomes as clear as the cloudless sky.

"This is the kind of tourism that doesn't disturb the peace and serenity that the residents find so magnificent," adds Mitchell, who grew up in the region. "I am so very proud to invite visitors here, because I know once they come, they will feel the way we do."

Travel and tourism is Pennsylvania's second-leading industry, and Pennsylvania's travel and tourism performance has improved steadily since 1995. Tourism injected more than $27 billion into Pennsylvania's economy in 1998, an increase of $1.44 billion, or 5.6 percent, from 1997. With a payroll of $9.62 billion, travel and tourism in 1998 employed nearly 465,000 Pennsylvanians, up from 459,000 the previous year. In 1998, 114.1 million travelers came to the Commonwealth, up 2 percent from 1997's 112.4 million.

"The latest numbers show that our efforts are working," says Governor Ridge. "Tourism is up again, and that means more jobs for Pennsylvania. As the fierce competition for tourist dollars continues, you will continue to see innovative ideas, like the Cycle Southern Alleghenies initiative, to promote Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania attractions."

If Geist has his way, that growing roster of visitors will eventually include major international touring companies. He's cycled all over the world and believes the Southern Alleghenies can beat any competition. "We have more to offer than almost anywhere. I know that is true—it's not bragging," he says. "If you were to catalog a wish list of things you would want, we already have them. And we have a state government that is 100 percent behind us, including huge cooperation from the environmental, transportation, and business-development side of government."

Good communication between SARTC and regional businesses has encouraged the support and trust of the community. With more fine-tuning than fundamental changes, businesses located along the routes have been able to accommodate the needs of their new visitors. "We told them it would be very helpful if they had things like a bicycle pump, a vehicle with a bicycle rack, a place to lock bicycles at night, laundry capabilities, sports drinks, and bag lunches," Prosser adds. "The property owners readily agreed that none of this would take a lot of money, but would make a world of difference in how the customer responds."

Apparently so, as Bicycling magazine named Altoona one of America's top ten bike towns. Advertisements in Bicycling and BicycleUSA magazines, combined with a blitz of brochures to bicycle clubs and retail shops, have also paid off. Prosser tracks CSA's Web site hits, which provides information that helps her design promotional campaigns.

Future plans for CSA include improved signage, paved shoulders, and a second phase of routes designed for off-road or mountain bikers that is slated for completion by summer 2001. It can't happen soon enough for Geist, who can see the promise CSA holds for the region and cannot rest until that vision becomes reality.

"I've been in the House 22 years, and I've seen some wonderful things," he says, perched on the edge of his chair. "This is one of those seeds that has a chance to grow into something big. We need to cultivate and fertilize, nurture and pollinate it. That's our job. We have to create that atmosphere. We don't have the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Phillies, but we have something those cities don't have. That's our unique asset, and one that needs to be fully developed."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.