Greenways generating half-million per year

By Tom Joyce

June 24, 2014

The name greenways seems appropriate, since the two trails in Mount Airy are generating much “green” for the community — $578,585 per year, according to a newly released study.

People typically think of a greenway as a place to get exercise or for environmental aspects linked to the preservation of a stream, said city Parks and Recreation Director Catrina Alexander.

But greenways offer financial benefits as well, Alexander said — only that has been hard to determine until now, with the new study showing that cash registers of local businesses also are getting a workout from users.

That is the conclusion of the user-preference and economic impact analysis of the Emily B. Taylor and Ararat River greenways, the results of which were presented to city officials during a meeting Thursday night.

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of years,” said Darren Rhodes of the N.C. Department of Commerce, which led the study that began in 2012 and was concluded this year. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro also was involved, including Dr. Erick Byrd, who helped present its results along with Rhodes, chief planner of the department’s Piedmont Regional Office in Winston-Salem.

The purpose of the analysis was to answer questions such as who uses the greenways and how, and what impact the trails have on the local economy.

In reaching the conclusion that the two facilities are responsible for generating more than a half-million dollars annually, the analysis relied on results on surveys of users in 2012, Rhodes explained, along with temporary “traffic” counters.

A total of 141, in-depth surveys were done then, with the focus on greenway users from the local (Mount Airy-Surry County) area that summer and ones from out of town during the fall. Free bottled water and a chance to win a three-month membership to Reeves Community Center were offered to respondents to help ensure their cooperation.

Average User Is 38

Basic findings gleaned from the surveys showed the average user of the greenways is 38 years old and that females make up 50.8 percent of users.

Also according to the profile, the average user lives within seven miles of the facilities and utilizes them three times a week, with the average group size two adults and two children. The participants tend to represent higher-income socio-economic groups.

Walking is the most common use of the greenways by far, with running/jogging number two on the list and biking behind those.

The survey found that 30 percent of greenway users were non-local, meaning they don’t live in Surry.

Business Tie-Ins

Of those surveyed, 76.8 percent said the greenways influenced their decision to visit downtown Mount Airy the same day. The survey process further showed that in about three-fourth of the cases, the presence of the greenway was what brought people to Mount Airy in the first place — which was accompanied by the patronizing of business.

While in Mount Airy, 69 percent of users from out of town said they had visited or planned to visit local restaurants, and to a lesser degree (the 30 percent range) entities such as gas stations, convenience stores and specialty shops.

Greenway tourist figures show visitors spent an average of $21.88 for lodging while here, along with $26.36 at restaurants, $18.44 on shopping and $10.15 on food and supplies. Other expenditures, such as auto operations and entertainment, were in the single digits.

All this adds up to the average travel party (3.25 people) spending a total of $111.88 per visit. There are about 7,274 travel party uses of the greenway system per year, which the research reveals to be an estimated economic impact of $578,585.

This figure includes a downward adjustment being made for visitors who would have patronized such businesses without the greenways’ presence, Alexander explained.

“It’s been a long process,” the city parks and recreation official said of the analysis to determine how the greenways impact the local economy. “But it’s great to understand the return on investment.”

As a whole, $4.6 million was spent on the most recently development trail, the Ararat River greenway, and a related restoration project — mainly from state grant sources — with only about $1 million coming from city funds.

The greenway-related spending derived through the analysis did not account for fishing along the Ararat River, which has become a key trout destination in the region because of the river’s restoration.

That would boost the total since angling can be an expensive pastime, given the equipment and supplies involved, those heading the study said.

Key Recommendations

In addition to more research on the fishing segment, the new analysis can be a springboard for other steps, Rhodes and Byrd said.

That includes presenting the information to local organizations that might benefit from the findings, and discussing these with a focus group to determine other types of information should be captured.

Another step could involve local visitor center personnel providing tourists with information about the greenways, including “easy” directions on how to access them.

It also was suggested that a convenient connection be established between downtown Mount Airy and the greenways, and a designated parking lot near the downtown area for pathway users.

In addition to a planned connector linking the two greenways, the student suggests another possible connection between the trails through the downtown area.

The local survey was considered a first of its kind, and is expected to aid the greenway planning of other communities, officials say.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.