Dec. 2—The economic impact of tourism along the Great Allegheny Passage totaled $121 million in 2019, according to a new study.
Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Fourth Economy conducted the examination through hundreds of surveys and interviews of trail visitors, stakeholders, businesses and towns along its 150 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.
"I'm delighted that folks are using the Great Allegheny Passage and spending money locally," said Bryan Perry, director of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy.
The study was the first of its kind on the former railroad since the trail's completion in 2013.
In 2019, a similar study by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy found that walking and bike trails throughout Pennsylvania contributed $930 million annually to the state'seconomy.
A previous economic impact study, done in 2009, showed tourist spending tallied about $40 million between McKeesport and Cumberland. Perry said an updated look was needed to include the Pittsburgh section of the passage.
Fourth Economy gathered information from those who use and benefit from the trail. Many small towns in Allegheny, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties have experienced growth and businesses have popped up to meet the needs of trail users.
In 2020, the Great Allegheny Passage was visited by about 1.4 million people, up about 50% compared to 2019. An estimated 117,000 users were considered "thru-riders," or those who traveled multiple days on the passage.
Fourth Economy concluded that tourism generated more than $74 million in direct spending in 2019 — the cost for food or an overnight stay paid by a trail user, for example. An additional $47 million in economic impact comes through indirect and induced spending, which can mean what an owner spends to keep the business going and what employees spend locally.
About 40% of trail-facing business owners reported they started operations between 2015 and 2019, according to the study. The trail supported nearly 1,400 jobs and generated an estimated $19 million in tax revenue in 2019. Mickey McGlasson, senior consultant, said the $121 million economic impact equals more than $800,000 per mile of trail.
"Throughout our engagement work, one message was consistently reinforced: the GAP is a massive economic driver for the region through which it travels," he said.
Even without the study, Perry has known how the trail benefits towns like West Newton and Confluence simply from an increase in businesses over the years. He commended those who have taken risks to attract trail users and said that there are still plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs in places like Smithton, Whitsett, Boston and Garrett.
"Tourism is magnificent, it adds to the economy, but it's not the whole picture," he said.
Most of those interviewed in the study reported that the trail makes their community more vibrant and Perry said most locals have thoroughly embraced their status as a trail town. It also adds to the health of a community.
The coronavirus pandemic drastically affected businesses with 70% reporting a decrease in revenue even while user counts rose. A day user spends an average of $90 while using the trail and an overnight user spends an average of $496, according to the study.
To read the entire study, visit gaptrail.org/updates.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .