Can the Recreation Economy Help Revitalize Small Towns on the Ohio River?

As towns large and small along the Ohio River struggle to rebuild their economies, many are trying to attract more industry. But some places are realizing that embracing the recreational side of their riverfronts can also be a key engine for growth. (Photo: Kara Lofton)

Business has been picking up in recent years for Tim Reddinger, who owns a bait shop in Bridgewater, just north of Pittsburgh, along the Ohio River.

“Can you see that right there?” Reddinger asks, pointing from the bank to a nearby eddy in the river. “Those are baby shad—probably not a couple months old.”

LISTEN: Revitalizing the Ohio River Through Recreation

Industrial sites dot the river banks upstream and down from Reddinger’s fishing spot. But he says it’s nothing like it used to be when he was a kid 50 years ago.

“That mountainside over there was orange at night from all the blast furnaces glowing,” Reddinger says. “Dump city—anything you wanted to get rid of—back then, no one cared.”

But over time, many mills closed down, and the Clean Water Act limited pollution from those that remained. Reddinger remembers more than a decade ago, the shad started showing up.

“That tells you how good the water is,” Reddinger says. “Say ‘boo’ to them and they’ll fall over dead. They will not live in contaminated water.”

Tim Reddinger casts a line on the Ohio River in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Reddinger has lived along the Ohio River his entire life, working for most of his career in the steel mills that once lined the riverfront. As a child, Reddinger would come to this spot with friends. Back then, the water was so dirty, the kids would have to flick oil off their lines before recasting them in the water. Photo: Kara Lofton

The decline of industry was devastating to the region’s economy, but Reddinger says one positive side effect is that more people hang out on the river here. That’s true in Pittsburgh, too.

“We’ve been working to make the river an exciting cultural place for the city,” says urban designer Nina Chase, who works with a nonprofit called Riverlife. Her organization has overseen the development of a system of parks and trails along Pittsburgh’s riverfronts. With a price tag of $130 million, it hasn’t been cheap. But Chase says it was a wise investment.

“That $130 million in investment has actually triggered $4.1 billion in investment in riverfront and adjacent riverfront development projects downtown.”

Now Riverlife is trying to bring Pittsburgh’s recreational vision downstream to smaller communities. They recently received a grant from the Benedum Foundation (which also funded this series on the Ohio River). Chase says Riverlife is trying to encourage a culture of recreation all along the Ohio River. And they aren’t alone.

Thom Way has been trying to lead his downstream city, Steubenville, Ohio, in this direction. Standing by the river, Way says many towns like his are still struggling economically from the downturn of the steel and coal industries—and they’re trying to figure out what’s next.

“As the communities search for identities, there’s opportunity for growth and direction in areas of outdoor recreation, art, food diversity, cultural diversity,” he says.

A few years ago, he founded the Urban Frontier Organization to promote this type of creative economic development in the upper Ohio Valley. His goal is to “reactivate” forgotten or neglected assets—including the river itself.

One thing he’s pushing: Water sports, like kayaking, canoeing and rafting. He says recreational opportunities serve not only as a healthy lifestyle choice for local residents; they’re also powerful incentives for younger generations to locate in the region.

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Pittsburgh has been ground zero for riverfront revitalization in the region. Riverlife’s Nina Chase says a $130-million investment in parks and trails along Pittsburgh’s riverfronts has spurred $4.1 billion in development—and helped transform the public’s perception of the city’s rivers. Photo: Kara Lofton

There are other projects like Way’s along the Ohio River, and some adventure outfitters and renters say they’ve seen increases in business over the past decade. But can recreation and tourism really be a major economic driver? There isn’t a lot of research on the economic impacts of river recreation in the Ohio Valley. But further downstream on the Mississippi River, nature-based recreation is one of Iowa’s largest industries.

In a survey by Iowa State University, half of respondents said they took regular trips to state rivers, and portions of the Mississippi were among the most popular spots. Mostly, people reported taking day trips. Heaviest use was reported by young, educated people who earn a decent paycheck. The most popular activity? Relaxing. That includes fishing, wildlife viewing and hiking along river trails.

And these “relaxers” spend an estimated billion and a half dollars each year—just kicking back.

But will this work on the Ohio River, which still has a reputation as one of the dirtiest waterways in the country? Many Ohio River towns see their futures in rebuilding heavy industry—not recreation. Shell is building a new ethane cracker in Beaver, Pennsylvania. And two other cracker plants are being considered in the region. New spinoff industries are already gearing up.

Riverlife’s Nina Chase says, just as in Pittsburgh, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There’s room on the river for industry and recreation.

“You have to be creative with land use and points of access, but you can do both and have them work well,” she says.

Chase says towns that want a future that includes river recreation will need leadership and vision to create a new identity in the region.

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This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.