Bold bike ideas could boost tourism, health

SHEPHERDSTOWN – It’s been nearly two years since the 10-mile W.Va. 9 Bike Path opened to the public, and some community leaders say it’s time to do more to attract cyclists to the Panhandle.

Nationwide, bicyclists compose one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism industry, explains Lois Turco, the co-creator of Freedom’s Run, the marathon that brings thousands of runners to Shepherdstown every fall.

Many make cycling on the W.Va. 9 bike path a family ritual.

“With our history and natural beauty, we have tremendous potential to draw bicyclists not just from across the Northeast but even internationally,” Turco said. “It’s a perfect way to highlight Jefferson County as a heritage area. We can create a destination that bicyclists will want to return to again and again.”

As with Freedom’s Run, the addition of more bike trails in the Panhandle will plow more tourists’ dollars into the local economy, Turco points out. During their visits, these cyclists tend to patronize restaurants, make day trips to museums, recreational sites and other spots, and stay overnight in bed and breakfasts, hotels and campgrounds, she said.

And just as Freedom’s Run has put the spotlight on the importance of working to stay healthy, more bike paths will make it fun and easy for local residents to get out and exercise, said Turco, a Shepherdstown resident.

“It’s tourism, but also a quality of life enhancement for people who live here,” she said.

Paths that provide safe, low-stress cycling are seen as a key to attracting cycling tourists as are connections with existing towns – rather than simply a path for riding from Point A to Point B.

Turco’s current project involves lobbying the Jefferson County Planning Commission to give the go-ahead for a bike path that would connect Shepherdstown with Harpers Ferry. She plans to present her ideas formally at the commission’s next meeting on Tuesday.

That idea would extend the W.Va. 9 Bike Path, which today follows the busy highway from near the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg to the Potomac Marketplace shopping center in Ranson, along the U.S. 340 corridor into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

No dollar amount for the project has been estimated, Turco said. “We’re not at that point yet,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella – the marathoner and family physician who co-founded Freedom’s Run with Turco in 2009 – is working with Morgan’s Grove Market creator Peter Corum and other community leaders to create a bike path from downtown Shepherdstown to Morgan’s Grove Park along W.Va. 480.

Another proposal would connect the W.Va. 9 Bike Path with the C&O Canal through Shepherdstown and then with the Great Allegheny Passage, the popular 150-mile rail trail in Pennsylvania. Others dream of extending the W.Va. 9 Bike Path alongside a new, four-lane highway to Berkeley Springs.

How to pay for new bike paths is a challenge, with state transportation officials in Charleston saying they have 10 times more requests than available dollars. But Turco and others point out that by investing in ways for West Virginians to be healthier, the state would save in healthcare costs in the long run. The potential of attracting more tourists to West Virginia also makes bike paths a smart budget item, she said.

Cyclists make an especially attractive type of tourist, according to the California-based non-profit advocacy group American Trails.

Bicycle tourists tend to be older, well-educated and more affluent. In a survey of bicyclist tourists visiting the Outer Banks in North Carolina, more than 80 percent reported having a college degree, according to American Trails. The organization said that 78 percent said those answering that survey said their household income was $75,000 or higher.

Freedom’s Run – which winds through four national parks and includes not just the marathon but a half-marathon, a 10K, a 5K and a kids’ fun run – in just its second year became West Virginia’s largest running event.

In its inaugural year, more than 1,840 children, teens and adults from 37 states took part in some aspect of Freedom’s Run. In 2011, the event was filled almost to capacity, with runners coming from adjoining states as well as from far-away locales including Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, Massachusetts and California. And each runner typically brought along a friend to run with – or a traveling companion who sat out the actual race but explored the town nonetheless. Many runners bring along their entire family.

Feedback from participants included praise for the area’s history and scenery, with many saying they planned to return for the 2012 race on Oct. 13 and extend their visit to allow more time to enjoy the area’s offerings.

Turco says Freedom’s Run pays off for the local community in an additional way, one that she anticipates would grow if the Panhandle becomes a bigger cycling destination.

“You can see residents starting to feel a greater pride in place,” she said. “When you see visitors coming in from outside the area and they’re talking about what a beautiful place this is and how much history is here, then long-time residents start to think about this area in a way maybe they haven’t before. Our appreciation for what we have in our backyard starts to expand.”

Even without further enhancements to the area’s bike paths, the area is becoming a draw for bicyclists. Starting on June 24, some 2,000 cyclists with the group Bike Virginia will travel mostly back roads through Jefferson County. Some will be camping out and others are electing to take it easy. “The Bavarian Inn is completely booked that weekend,” she said. “It’s exciting for the region – Jefferson County is the perfect setting for this kind of outdoor recreation.”

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