Once a bustling hub of the Pennsylvania coal industry, northern Lehigh and Carbon counties have had struggling economies for decades.
“We’re not a coal-based economy anymore,” said Alice Wanamaker, assistant vice president of the Northern Region for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. She said that while it may not be “the doom and gloom” in the region that some people picture, attracting business has been a challenge.
And if the region is going to succeed economically, she said, “We’re going to have to develop to where our strengths are.”
That strength is no longer found in coal, but the region still features abundant natural beauty, reflected in its rivers, forests and trails.
“We have the natural resources that draw people in,” said Kathy Henderson director of economic development for the chamber.
Now, like many other regions, Pennsylvania’s coal country is looking to reinvent itself to bring in more people and the money they will spend.
Rails to Trails
Outdoor recreation is a $29.1 billion a year industry in Pennsylvania, according to the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. If properly tapped, activities like hiking, biking and rafting can take areas that are rich in natural resources but perhaps lacking in economic vitality and serve as a driver of economic development.
Among the features that can bring is business are biking and hiking trails, economic development officials said. The D&L Trail along the Delaware and Lehigh rivers is no exception.
Mike Drabenstott, chair of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, said establishing businesses along the D&L was one of the main goals of the trail’s developers, right alongside adding outlets for recreation and access to nature.
The D&L Trail, founded in 1988 and managed by the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, winds along a 165-mile route carved by railroad track used by trains that once transported industrial goods from Wilkes-Barre to Bristol, passing through towns ranging from Jim Thorpe to Allentown.
“It was an economic engine for industry then. Now, it’s an economic engine again,” Drabenstott said.
Brian Greene, the heritage corridor’s trail programs manager and data scientist, noted that the D&L Trail attracts between 300,000 to 500,000 people a year.
Drabenstott said people using the trails have been asking for more amenities, especially at entrance points.
“People are drawn to the trails,” Drabenstott said. “And when they are there they want to rent bikes they want to eat and drink, they want to make a day of it and stay over in a bed and breakfast.”
Wanamaker said there has been a slow but steady growth over the years in the retail and service industry along the D&L Trail, and towns like Lehighton, Jim Thorpe and Palmerton are seeing businesses, such as bed and breakfasts, ice cream parlors and cafes, pop up near popular entrances to the trails.
She pointed to the Lehighton Outdoor Center, which opened last year, as an example.
The center was opened last year by Jerry McAward, who has been running a seasonal kayaking school for 20 years and a whitewater-rafting business for 12. He saw opportunities because of the D&L Trail, so he brought property about 50 feet from the trail’s entrance in Lehighton. It has parking for 300 vehicles and houses his two river businesses, as well as a bicycle shop, a cafe and a store selling hiking gear.
He said the first year was slower than he hoped, mostly because of poor weather, but he is optimistic about the future.
“My wagon is hitched to the idea that we will succeed. We want to be a pillar of the community here,” McAward said.
To help lure people who may be interested in starting businesses along the D&L Trail, officials with the D&L National Heritage Corridor have been reaching out to businesses and potential entrepreneurs in an effort to turn ideas into reality.
It holds regular outreach efforts. The latest is an event scheduled for March 22 in conjunction with the Northern Region for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. The event, a seminar called “Creating Your Own Trail Business,” is slated to take place at McAward’s Lehighton Outdoor Center.
Representatives of the corridor, the chamber, the Small Business Development Center of Wilkes University, SCORE of the Lehigh Valley, and local Lehighton Borough representatives will work with prospective entrepreneurs looking to set up shop along the trail.
“We’re talking to people that may have a good idea, but they’re not sure who to ask for help,” said Henderson.
The event is targeting development in Carbon, Schuylkill and northern Lehigh counties, it is open to people looking to set up shop anywhere along the 14- mile D&L Trail.
Wanamaker said potential ideas for trail-serving businesses include craft breweries and distilleries.
“People tell us they want to drink,” she said.
She said any kind of café, or bed and breakfast would find customers, and there’s even room for more tour-guide providers and other sorts of businesses.
She said existing businesses could benefit from advice on new ways they can earn revenue by targeting trail users.
Wanamaker cited A.F. Boyer Hardware & Guns in Slatington as an example of a business that has adjusted their business plan to cater to trail users. It has added footwear, clothing and even dog leashes to its inventory
“They now carry things that they can sell to people using the trail,” Henderson said. Footwear, clothing and even dog leashes have been added to the store’s inventory.
But the groups are looking to do more than just generate business ideas. Henderson said representatives from the Small Business Development Center and SCORE will also work with potential entrepreneurs on creating solid business plans.
“We need the businesses to be viable. We want to see them to succeed and get to the next level,” she said.
Bringing the big players
Moreover, Henderson said, the chamber wants to see the trail as a driver of economic development.
The effort is about more than just drawing in a handful of mom-and-pop shops. Groups involved in the promotion of trailside businesses are also looking to the overall development of the region.
Amenities like hiking and biking trails, as well as restaurants and other sources of entertainment, could help draw larger companies to an area.
Drabenstott pointed to publishing company Hearst, which was looking to relocate some former Rodale offices after it acquired the Emmaus-based company. It said nearby biking trails led to its decision to locate in downtown Easton, because the trails would benefit employees – especially those working for its Bicycling Magazine.
Greene said outdoor recreation is already responsible for more than 250,000 jobs in the state both directly and indirectly.
And the best par?
“You can’t outsource them,” Greene said. “You can’t take a job rafting on the Lehigh River and send it to China. These are place-based jobs.”
If you go
What: Creating Your Own Trail Business
When: March 22, 8 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Where: The Lehighton Outdoor Center, 123 Lehigh Drive, Lehighton