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Hikers, bikers boost business along Maryland trail

CUMBERLAND — Bikers and hikers trekking the Great Allegheny Passage trail are providing a boon to businesses catering to their needs.

“My first year I did three tours, this year I probably had 50,” said Gail Shofer Hall. Hall owns Mountainside Bike Tours, Mountain Getaway Tours and the Inn on Decatur. Hall started the tours about eight years ago and has had the inn for five years.

“Business is booming,” she said. Bike tourists come from all over the country and the world, she said.

Nicole Wagoner, director of sales for Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott, said her experience is similar. Her hotel, located next to Canal Place where the GAP and C&O Canal towpath merge, hosted more than 500 cyclists this year. “Generally, when they do come through here, they’re going from D.C. to Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh to D.C.,” she said.

Most cyclists want to hit the road and only stay for a night. Fairfield staff urges cyclists to visit local businesses and educates the guests on everything Cumberland and the county have to offer.

“We have a lot of repeats from last year,” she said. “I classify our hotel as a rider-friendly hotel,” she said.

She credits Bill Atkinson for keying her into the business possibilities related to the trail. Atkinson is a regional planner for the state Department of Planning.

“I grasped it and ran with it,” she said.

Trail use spiked this year and Atkinson is optimistic that the trail is catching on as a hiking-biking option. “Word’s getting out about the trail,” he said. Several programs and organizations help promote and organize trail tourism, including the Trail Town program.

Infrared counters at various points on the trail tally the number of people using the trail. Local counters are at Valley Street in Cumberland, near Woodcock Hollow at Mount Savage and at Frostburg near New Hope Road. Not only do the counters provide a number, they can tell what direction bikers and hikers are headed and at what time they passed by, he said. Nearly 2,000 bikers have used the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad to shuttle from Cumberland to Frostburg this year. Cyclists pay extra to take their bikes on board, he said.

“In the six months we had counts for this year, we are already over the 12-month total for last year,” he said. The trail gets the heaviest use on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. After the existing counters had some problems, new counters were installed in May. Even though several months of data were unavailable, trail usage in 2010 has already topped usage in 2009 for miles 0-21. In 2009, 51,555 trail users were counted; so far this year, the number is 66,154. And that number includes no information for January through April, when 10,181 users were counted in 2009.

Those numbers mean good business, and Atkinson said he’s heard that local bed and breakfasts are seeing an upswing in business from trail tourists.

Hall said there are several types of bike tourists, and while all the groups she identified exist, things have changed over the past couple of years. At first, she encountered cyclists aiming to do the trail quickly, all they wanted was “a beer, a sandwich and a bed.” As the trail and her business became better known, she encountered “vacation cyclists, who took things a bit slower, maybe 25 miles a day. They “wanted to take time to stop and visit things,” she said. Now, she’s taking on lots of families for tours, so she’s added children’s’ activities to her tour programs.

“It’s endless,” she said of the trail’s possibilities. Ninety percent of her guests, she said, are trail-related.

Businesses interested in taking advantage of trail tourism can find funding to help, said Atkinson. Funding is available from the Trail Town program and the Progress Fund.

The Great Allegheny Passage trail is planned to run from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, ending there at Point State Park. The trail isn’t quite finished yet, with a few miles near Pittsburgh not complete. The planned completion date is Nov. 11, 2011. Trail planners took a big step forward with the recent purchase of the final section of land needed to complete the trail in Pennsylvania near Sandcastle Water Park, Atkinson said. Locally, Allegany County owns and operates the trail, and is promoting trail tourism. The trail is essentially a continuation of the C&O Canal towpath.

“Actually, people think of them as one trail,” he said. “We’re seeing through-riders,” he said, who cover the whole trail from start to finish.

The trail’s mile marker “0” is a brass inlay under the blue archway at Canal Place. When complete, the rail will run 150 miles into Pittsburgh. The trail has a crushed limestone surface on abandoned railroad lines, at no more than a 3 percent grade.

“We like to say it’s ‘through the mountains, not over them,'” Atkinson said.

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