By TRINA RUNNER
News & Journal Staff Writer
Anyone passing by the Woman’s Club in Shinnston on September 20 might have had his or her interest piqued by the crowd gathered inside. After all, there were families with young children, several out-of-state license plates on the cars outside, some local dignitaries, some business owners and even some dressed in cycling clothes. The diverse group was gathered for one very specific purpose and it ultimately took them out of the building in which they were gathered and onto the rail trail that runs through the City of Shinnston.
With an average of $13 million dollars per day, the West Virginia tourism industry has proven to have a significant economic impact on local communities. Having nearly 14 miles of rail trail running through Shinnston has created a ripe opportunity to improve the area, whether it be culturally, educationally, physically, or simply drawing attention to the natural beauty and diversity of the city.
The Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition (IHTC) is partnering with local trail and community development organizations to host workshops in four areas during the fall of 2016. Shinnston was the first to house the group, starting a community conversation during the interactive meeting held on September 20.
To put it simply, trails mean business. More than 40 people gathered to assess the needs of the area and of the tourists who visit it. Five states were represented among the attendees, each with contributions of how trails have impacted local economies and introduced varied activities to both locals and tourists.
After a brief presentation, those attending were divided into smaller groups and challenged to view the trail with fresh eyes, assessing everything from signage to conveniences commonly sought by tourists. While ATMs and coffee shops were readily available, it was noted that those unfamiliar with the area might be unaware of some of its resources.
As the groups walked and cycled the trail, they found many signs of community pride, including the community garden, the friendly store owners, the beautiful upkeep of storefronts, and the Veterans Memorial. Historical sites and markers noting significant happenings were also observed and praised, especially by the out-of-town attendees. Overall, Shinnston proved to be an inviting community, eager to welcome and assist guests as they arrived in the area.
Although a few logistics and potential improvements were noted, the main emphasis was on how to get more visitors to the area and how to inform them of all the city has to offer. Suggestions were made to improve signage, promote activities and resources and accentuate the free parking and extended hours of local facilities. By experiencing the city with a fresh perspective, local residents and business owners were able to see new possibilities in the town where they raise families and gather with friends.
Nearly $50 million is spent annually on the Great Allegheny Passage, a similar trail linked with the network of over 1,400 miles through four surrounding states and West Virginia. That economic boost continues to help small businesses, create connections, boost morale and foster regional collaborations. By cultivating a culture of hospitality, small towns throughout the rail trails have found ways to draw tourists into the unique offerings of their area, making a huge impact on the community and the local economy.
Partnering with Harrison Rail Trails, Rails to Trails Conservancy, and concerned citizens, the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition is determined to educate and inform communities with potential growth opportunities. More importantly, conversations with locals allows concerns and suggestions to be heard and implemented.
Additional community conversations will be scheduled throughout the year to coordinate efforts for projects suggested in the assessments and discussion on September 20. Information is available for the grass roots initiative by contacting www.ihearttrails.org.