At the park where Manhattan Coal Company miners once went to work and the village of Chauncey began life as a salt mining town, cars, trucks and vans now fill the lot.

Adults of all ages, often with children in tow, are again heading into the forested hills, but now they go by bike and on foot via the Baileys Trail System, which is already attracting thousands of visitors looking for a new place to enjoy the outdoors. And, the Baileys is only one of the dozens of trails, lakes, rivers and adjoining towns in Southeast Ohio that travelers are discovering.

We are on the cusp of an incredible opportunity in our region, one in which we can create a new small business economy that is locally grown and easy on the land. If we’re successful, our young people won’t need to move elsewhere for jobs, and we will be able to share our natural assets with visitors in ways that are sustainable and benefit our community. Rural Action and ACEnet have created the Trail Town Business Challenge in an effort to help local residents capitalize on this opportunity.

Rural Action, is a regional community development organization working on a range of quality of life, environmental and economic projects across rural Appalachian Ohio.

The history of Appalachian Ohio has been one of boom and bust, with short-term prosperity ending in long-term loss of opportunity. This cycle was driven by companies that had little or no investment in local people; when the resources were gone, business left as well.

Today, many towns across the country are finding new economic opportunities without destroying the land that makes that possible. Outdoor recreation has become a major driver of new jobs and business growth. By adding almost $460 billion annually to the national GDP, the outdoor economy is now twice as big as oil and gas development, and almost three times larger than motor vehicle manufacturing.

In Ohio alone, outdoor recreation contributes nearly $6 billion in economic activity from direct visitor spending, indirect business-to-business spending, tax revenues and the work of the business services that support tourism.

Think about that: What we do for outdoor recreation and good health can also be good for our local economies. Trail running, hiking, fishing, biking and camping are the top five outdoor activities that people participate in across the country, and in Southeast Ohio, we have places people want to visit to do just that.

Recreation tourism has been successful in places with a history and natural resources similar to ours. In Fayetteville, West Virginia, fishing, river rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, hunting and hiking support dozens of businesses that employ hundreds of local residents.

In Connellsville, Pennsylvania, cyclists pass through town as they bike the length of Great Allegheny Passage trail. These visitors dine, shop, enjoy shows and sleep in many of the 10 small towns along the 150-mile rail trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. Nearly 990,000 cyclists rode the GAP trail in 2019, and over $74 million was spent by those who stayed overnight in towns along the way.

A first step to capitalize on recreation tourism in our area means giving visitors places to stay, options to eat and things to do. Many area entrepreneurs have already begun to do this and are planning to create additional business services that both visitors and local residents will benefit from.

Growing businesses built on outdoor recreation is a locally driven way our region can find economic stability while taking care of the places that make this area home for so many families. When the local community takes the lead on business growth, our shared values can remain at the front of the conversation. A local economy that works for our children, family and friends creates a place where we can remain and return to because the economic foundation of our community is more resilient.

To spark community economic development, Rural Action and ACEnet are launching the Trail Town Business Challenge, a no-cost teaching and learning experience for participants working through the business planning process.

The workshops are structured to help participants expand an existing business or launch a new startup focused on regional tourism. Topics include information on securing loans, accounting tools, marketing strategies, and zoning and regulations.

The Challenge culminates in the chance to present their final plans to earn cash awards and other resources that will help ventures get off the ground successfully. The application deadline to participate in the Trail Town Business Challenge is Oct. 29. Learn more at ruralaction.org/challenge.

Dan Vorisek, Rural Action Resilient Communities Director

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