Schuylkill River Trail extensions will connect Pottstown, Phoenixville

A view of the Schuylkill River Trail in Mont Clare and a section of the Schuylkill Canal. Photo by John Strickler The Mercury

POTTSTOWN — It’s a simple truth, one that Kurt Zwikl repeats often: the longer a trail, the more people it attracts.

So perhaps that’s why as executive director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Association, he is so excited about the nearly $10 million of work being planned for his trail along the Schuylkill River.

Listed among hundreds of projects approved for funding in Pennsylvania and New Jersey by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, two relatively little items in Chester County are big news in terms of the Schuylkill River Trail.

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Though small, they form crucial connections between two completed portions of the trail — from Mont Clare to Phoenixville and from Parker Ford to Pottstown.

The lesser project is a $1.3 million plan to modify the Route 29 bridge over the Schuylkill, linking Mont Clare with the only remaining functioning section of the Schuylkill Navigation lock and canal system to Phoenixville, making room for the trail to cross between Montgomery and Chester counties.

Work on the project is expected to begin in fiscal year 2015.

The second project is long awaited — the 9.8-mile portion to link the trailhead at Township Line Road in East Pikeland to the Route 422 bridge over the Schuylkill River now being built.

That bridge will carry the trail over the Schuylkill River and connect Montgomery and Chester counties at Pottstown.

“Literally, not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me when the trail between Phoenixville and Pottstown will be completed,” Zwikl said.

Work on that portion of the trail is scheduled for 2017 and is estimated to cost $8.4 million.

These 10 miles of trail work will make the trail continuous from Philadelphia all the way to Reading.

And that means dollars.

“The longer the trail, the longer they stay, the more money they spend, it’s that simple,” said Zwikl.

So what kind of numbers are we talking about?

In York, a 21-mile trail generated $6.2 million in economic activity in 2007.

The 12-mile Allegheny-Highlands Trail generated $12.1 million in 2002.

Closer to home, the 19-mile-long Perkiomen Trail in Montgomery County hosts nearly 400,000 unique visits each year and those visitors generate an estimated $19.8 million in economic activity.

In 2010, the heritage area hosted a “Trail Towns” Conference in Pottstown, where the economic benefits of a completed Schuylkill River Trail were explored in depth.

Todd Poole, president of 4ward Planning LLC, told the conference trails can mean big money.

The Schuylkill River Trail generated $7.3 million in direct economic impact in 2008 and another $3.6 million in indirect impact, Poole said.

The trail attracted 802,239 visits that year.

“Consider that the Reading Phils had attendance of 436,789 that same year, so 800,000 people is pretty impressive,” Poole said. “Now we all have to think about that group of people as a market.”

That market, he said, is primarily the baby boomer generation.

Along the trail, there are 55 ZIP codes and a population of 1.2 million.

The age group of 39 to 65 — the group most likely to engage in heritage and cultural tourism — represents nearly 40 percent of that population, has a median income of $47,473 and nearly 39 percent of them have advanced degrees.

“Those aren’t bad demographics,” Poole said.

Further, the number of workers within three miles of the trail is steadily rising, increasing by 73,000 in 2008 alone.

Of those workers, more than 82,000 are professionals, technical workers or in scientific fields, a category of people “more likely to use the trail,” according to Katherine Adams, the senior director at GOZAIC, the website of Heritage Travel Inc, which is a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“They’re the folks we want to come and visit us,” said Adams.

Zwikl admits to having high hopes that Pottstown will be among the river towns to take full advantage of that flood of heritage tourists when they are attracted by the longer trail.

“The trail is coming, and the trail users are coming and the towns that will benefit the most are the towns that are ready when they get here,” said Zwikl. “It’s that simple.”

Toward that end, the heritage area has created a “Trail Towns Toolkit” that helps towns along the trail identify the assets that will be most attractive to trail users and capitalize on them.

And that tool kit also comes attached to a small grant pool which towns can use to put ideas into action. In Pottstown, grants were used to create signs and kiosks along the trail by taking advantage of the bike lanes along High Street to bring riders right through the middle of town.

“That was Tom Carroll’s idea,” Zwikl said of the ardent activist and chairman of the Pottstown Borough Authority.

“And we thought, ‘why didn’t we think of that?’” said Zwikl. “Why not bring them right through town on the trail?”

Having done that, the next order of business is to consider what those trail users are looking for.

About 65 percent of leisure travelers “are seeking an experience where the destination, its buildings, and surroundings have retained their historic character,” said Adams. “That’s not something you can go out and invent.”

“They want a living town and they don’t expect a living town to be like DisneyWorld, where everything got built in the same year and mom washes the windows every day,” Adams said.

“They want to explore different cultures. They want variety and they want local, regional memorabilia they can show their friends,” said Adams. “They don’t want something you can buy in Banana Republic or Wal-Mart that you could get anywhere. It’s not exciting to go a place to find the exact same thing you can find in eight other places.”

As for the historic aspect to those visits, “they want an educational experience, but they want it to be entertaining, not a snoozefest with a 45-minute recitation of all the relevant facts,” she said.

In terms of entertainment, Pottstown is developing just the right mix of historic attractions and entertainment right around its Schuylkill River Trail trailhead, said Zwikl.

And the Colebrookdale Railroad’s Secret Valley excursion line is just what the marketing director ordered, he said.

“This railroad is going to be a game-changer, because we already know from other operating excursion railroads how many people they attract and how far they’ll come to ride one,” he said.

“The critical mass of people is key,” he said. “When they get to Pottstown, they’ll discover all the other things they can do here.”

“Consider someone who wants to set up a day excursion of even longer can ride the trail to Pottstown, they can ride the train to Boyertown and back, they can ride the carousel, they can play miniature golf, they can go to an art gallery, they can visit our River of Revolutions Interpretive Center, they can watch a volleyball rumble or BMX race, go the splash park, eat in one of a dozen downtown restaurants, visit Pottsgrove Manor or take in a show at the Steel River Playhouse,” Zwikl said.

The two pending trail projects will also mean the Heritage Area can expand its popular pedal-paddle trips.

“Right now, you pedal up the trail to Morlattan Village, visit some historic buildings, have lunch in Ganshahawny Park, and then put into the river and paddle back to Pottstown,” said Zwikl.

“But with this new section of trail, you could paddle down to Frick’s Lock Village, or Parker Ford, or Phoenixville, and then pedal back to Pottstown,” he said. “Pottstown is perfectly situated right in the middle so you can go either way.”

It’s all part of a strategy of diversifying and capitalizing on the assets you have, and the ones you can create, he said. “It can’t be just one thing that carries the town, it has to be a critical mass and I think we’re getting there in Pottstown,” said Zwikl.

Further, studies show these visitors will “pay more for historic lodgings,” Adams said, which means bed and breakfast inns could spring up in any of the hundreds of large, historic buildings in Pottstown to serve trail-riders and parents visiting The Hill School, said Zwikl.

“I know of one place where you could stay in a bed and breakfast one right, ride the trail to your next destination and when you get there, your luggage would be there in the room waiting for you,” he said.

Another way to attract trail users are events and festivals, and Pottstown already has its share of those too.

“You look at the car shows Pottstown has downtown every month, the parades, the Carousel of Flavor, the Volleyball Rumble,” those work in Pottstown’s favor too he said, adding the burgeoning joint effort by borough service clubs to make Pottstown the go-to place for Halloween during the month of October “is exactly the kind of thing that would attract fall foliage riders.”

Two other key elements remain uncompleted, he said.

The first is a marketing effort to get the word out to the wider world.

“We’ve been talking with the borough about creating a recreation or entertainment district around the attractions, the train, Pottsgrove Manor, the carousel, the park, the gallery and the trail and see if we can’t put together an application for a marketing grant, maybe with the Willian Penn Foundation, because that’s one of their primary goals, to connect communities to the trail and to make the most of that opportunity,” said Zwikl.

The second element becomes obvious once Zwikl explains it.

“We need an education effort, so that every business in the downtown knows about all the things we have going on,” he said.

“What you don’t want is someone riding into Pottstown on the trail, stopping in to a business on High Street to buy a drink, or get lunch, and ask where the train or the theater is and have someone in the store say ‘what train?’”

“The key for Pottstown will be having something to offer when those people get here and making sure everyone knows about it,” said Zwikl. “And we’re getting there.”

“When those last two trail connections are made, it’s going to be like driving the golden spike in Utah, connecting the east and west by rail,” said Zwikl, “and the towns that will get the most out of it are the ones who are ready.”

Follow Evan Brandt on Twitter @PottstownNews