Trails may boost local businesses
by Paige Rentz
As trails advocates from across Alabama trickled into Jacksonville for a trails conference last week, filling local hotels and restaurants, city leaders were looking for ways to make such patronage a more permanent condition of the city.

One of the primary goals of the organizers of the second Alabama Trails Conference was to help local governments realize the economic opportunities that can come with the development of recreational assets like Jacksonville’s Chief Ladiga Trail.

“Once you have the physical [trail] and the numbers are built up, you also have the entrepreneurial opportunities,” said Nisa Miranda, one of the conference organizers.

Joe Grimes, an account executive with the Small Business Development Center at Jacksonville State University, which played host last week, spoke Friday about potential for outdoor recreation-related small businesses.

Grimes said he and his colleagues have met recently with at least three potential entrepreneurs interested in biking-related businesses in the region. He said one client is interested in a bike rental business related directly to the Ladiga Trail.

“If we’ve talked to a few, there’s others out there that’s thought about it or done something we’re not aware of,” he said. The Ladiga and other trails, he said, are assets to the community that should help local business. At the least, he said “it could create a few jobs and bring in tourism dollars.”

Extending the trail

George Areno, whose term as a Jacksonville city councilman ends today, was among the audience for Grimes’ presentation. In his re-election campaign, Areno pushed for trail-centric redevelopment, including paving a spur from the trail to Alexandria Road where a gravel walking trail exists now. The spur would run directly north of the vacant Union Yarn Mill. The city owns a large portion of the idle mill property, which Areno said could be offered as a development opportunity for bike shops or other trail-related businesses.

“We’ve got to invest in spaces to develop what we hope are future businesses for Jacksonville,” he said.

Areno added that a new parcel of city land at the trail’s intersection with Francis Street would also be a prime spot for development, perhaps as a campsite for long-distance riders.

Mayor Johnny Smith said he also sees real potential for the area around Alexandria Road, where city employees have been working on a greenway that is currently cleared but unpaved between the road and the end of A Street. He said there has been talk of developing a campground in the area, even an RV park, but that hasn’t gone anywhere.

Henry Campeaux, chair of Jacksonville’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, said his committee has been working on more ways for residents to access the trail — at Greenleaf Street, the greenway and 11th Street — and signage to direct trail users to local businesses. “That access on Greenleaf would be perfect,” he said. “They could get to all the restaurants, to Winn-Dixie, to the hotel.”

Mayor Smith said the Greenleaf access has proven tricky because of right-of-way issues, but the city has used the Jacksonville Train Depot on Mountain Street as a starting point for drawing recreationalists into town.

This summer, the Parks & Recreation Department installed a display case outside the depot to point passers–by to area restaurants. PARD director Janis Burns said the city was able to order the display case and print up brochures about the trail with funds from a tourism grant. “It’s not anything extremely fancy, but it gets the information out,” she said.

Potential cycling corridor

Mountain Street is presently the most accessible exit from the trail to the downtown, Smith said. A ride down the street would take riders by restaurants such as Strut’s, Momma Goldberg’s Deli, a Yamato Japanese steakhouse, Waffle House and Effina’s Tuscan Grill. Once on Pelham Road, hungry patrons are within a block of Quizno’s, Burger King, Jefferson’s and Wendy’s and within three blocks of the Public Square.

At Strut’s, a wings joint located about three blocks from the trail, staff said they’ve seen some trail traffic. Assistant manager Krista Watts said that once or twice a week the restaurant sees several people ride their bikes to the location for a meal. Watts said this traffic is fairly steady and hasn’t seen any change since the directory was placed at the depot. She said signs posted along the trail directing people into town could be beneficial, particularly for those riding their bikes on the weekends.

At the Hampton Inn, where city officials hope recreational tourists will come stay to use the Ladiga and other nearby trails, guests often don’t know of the trail’s existence.

“I don’t think it’s actually being promoted as much as people think it is,” said Casey MacAllister, general manager of the Hampton Inn. The trail doesn’t seem to bring them much business, but she and the Hampton staff try to promote it as much as possible, she said.

Connecting the trail to Greenleaf Street would be welcome for the Hampton Inn, MacAllister said. The move would help hotel staff give guests easy directions, but it wouldn’t necessarily be more than a convenience, she added. But for those guests that make it to the trail, “they get really excited,” MacAllister said. “They say it’s a hidden treasure.”
© 2012