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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

West Virginia: Researchers Evaluate Impact of Local Rail-trails

An effort to expand a multiuse rail-to-trail network throughout the Industrial Heartland is drawing on the expertise and work of faculty at the West Virginia University Health Research Center (HRC).

In 2016-2017, the Center evaluated the business impact of the Mon River Trails System, a network of 48 miles of trails in north central West Virginia. The project, funded by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, was part of a larger economic-impact study for the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition. The Coalition – which aims to establish a 1,500-mile network of trails across 51 counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York – partnered with WVU to better understand the potential impact of the trail in the communities through which it will pass. Their unique findings were featured in a recent feasibility study and publicity video by the Coalition.

“Unlike many previously studied trail systems, the Mon River Trails System is more of a transportation and recreation hub for local residents than it is a tourism destination,” said Dr. Christiaan Abildso, an assistant professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health and program director in the Health Research Center. “Businesses located along the trail expressed what a draw it is in recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent.”

Dr. Abildso’s study focused on evaluating businesses along the trail in Morgantown, many of which are providers of professional services, such as law firms, that are not primarily impacted by direct expenditures of trail users. However, when combined with lodging, retail and food-service businesses in the same area, these businesses and the trail create a mutually beneficial environment – a “mixed-use, trail-oriented” development.

Dr. Abildso’s team found a number of direct and indirect benefits of the trails and useful lessons learned for other trail systems, including social activities and increased property values. Keeping trailside property values affordable, however, requires collaborative public-private planning, creative funding and economic development incentives from the outset.

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