Blazing a New Trail
The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development is a spearhead for outdoor trails development — an often-untapped potential for Alabama’s rural communities.
Carefully laid stepping stones lead down to the water along the Cahaba Blueway.
It takes a mix to create a trail. Government officials, area business leaders, statewide interest groups, tourism directors, volunteers — all are needed to make the vision of a widespread, multi-county trail project come to fruition.
“These types of large projects take resources that go beyond what any one party is able to bring to the table,” says Brian Rushing, director of economic development initiatives for the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development. “So what you have to look for are multiple parties to make these things happen. Seldom is there a single organization that can do it all. The trick is identifying who those partners are, then reaching out and getting them involved.”
There has been an increased push in the effort to create new trail systems since 2010, when the Alabama House of Representatives and former Gov. Bob Riley established the Alabama Trails Commission to oversee the development and maintenance of the state’s recreational trails. Part of the goal was to have the commission help establish new systems in rural areas of the state in an attempt to spur economic activity.
“Many rural communities are not in a position to attract manufacturing or large investments, because they don’t have the large population base and the infrastructure,” says Nisa Miranda, director of the Center for Economic Development and chair of the advisory committee to the Alabama Trails Commission. “And since they are off the beaten path, it can be difficult to attract visitors.
“So the rural communities are working at a disadvantage in many ways. But they do have some assets. They have a lot of history, culture and especially natural resources. That gives us a base to work from to help create a physical amenity.”
Still, a single attraction in a single small town is seldom enough to entice many people to visit. But, the thinking goes, if you string together a dozen or so attractions in several small towns and turn it into one big attraction called a trail, then suddenly you have the potential to lure visitors. The problem is, how do you get so many different communities to coordinate the planning and implementation needed to develop a trail system?
“What we often see in smaller communities,” says Rushing, “is they have a bit of a challenge in putting the pieces together — the advance planning that needs to be done and the salesmanship that needs to be done between all these different entities. You need somebody to stitch together the quilt to make these projects happen.”
An example is the Cahaba Blueway project, which is expected to be implemented by the end of this year, after three years of planning. Nearly 30 sites have been identified along the Cahaba River — from the Birmingham suburb of Trussville to Old Cahawba, just south of Selma — as being suitable for water access. The goal is to create a coordinated trail allowing canoeists to easily navigate various portions of the river.
“The Blueway is designed to develop the Cahaba into a recreational destination that will be marketable by the communities along the Cahaba,” Rushing says. “This is an outstanding natural resource in its biologic diversity and scenic beauty, but its outdoor tourism and recreation potential has been only modestly tapped.”
Rushing says the coordination process has included working with several local governments along the river, as well as a variety of groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Freshwater Land Trust and the Cahaba River Society. Together, they are ensuring that the selected sites have appropriate infrastructure, such as signage for parking and access trails. He expects 18 of the sites to be completed this year.
“There has been no lack of willingness or enthusiasm,” Rushing says. “It’s really just a question of facilitation in bringing all these different parties together.”
Joe Watts, a consultant for the Center for Economic Development, has had a similar experience in his attempt to help establish and coordinate the various bird-watching trails throughout the state. The state’s first birding trail was created along the Gulf Coast in the late 1990s, followed by another in north Alabama a few years later. But since 2010, Watts and the Center for Economic Development have been working to help develop trails throughout the rest of the state and promote them under the umbrella title of Alabama Birding Trails.
As with the Cahaba Blueway project, creating the Alabama Birding Trail has involved participation from a wide variety of groups, from the Audubon Society to biologists to local shop owners and volunteers.
“We wanted a combination of people who aren’t normally in the same room together. Environmentalists and biologists coupled with folks who are mostly about the economics,” Watts says. “We wanted the combination of those people getting together so they could understand the value they can all bring to the table and the economic impact of this.”
Unlike Cahaba Blueway, which already had a built-in natural trail with the river, creating a birding trail means finding out where the birds are located, and then making sure the suggested viewing points are in areas that are safe to access and open to the public.
“We hired a naturalist to go to each of these locations and survey and catalog what kind of birds were there. Just confirm what the locals said was genuinely accurate, take pictures of the site, and then write up all of that,” Watts says. “It’s a combination of the local folks who know the area, coupled with some real expert knowledge and research.
“Then we have to coordinate all this information and create a trail. Because you don’t want people to just go to the site and then go home. You want them to have lunch, get gas, maybe even spend the night. There are a lot of people who are interested in bird watching, and they tend to have a little bit more disposable income. Many of them will travel from all over the country to see a bird they’ve never seen before.”
And in the end, that is one of the primary selling points of such trails. They bring people and money to a place they otherwise probably never would visit.
“You’re creating a magnet to attract people to a place,” Miranda says. “Once you do that, there is then the opportunity to create businesses and services around the amenity, like a café or coffee shop or gas station. Grocery stores and bait shops. An outfitter that can rent canoes and transport people to or from the access points.
“Trails are something that can really improve over time and draw even more people. That’s what we’re aiming for. We’re really hoping and focusing on bringing economic development opportunities into these rural areas that are more secluded.”
Cary Estes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. Estes is based