There’s a national story line about parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania that goes like this:  as the steel and coal industries fade, small towns here are literally dying out. Young people move away because there’s a lack of jobs. But for the past twenty years, some entrepreneurs have quietly been working on a different narrative — one that harnesses the region’s natural beauty to build the economy. And their slow climb is starting to bear real fruit.

After being downsized from his career in computer sales, Rod Darby was angry, “I thought, ‘I’m never going to work for someone else again, so I’m going to start my own business,” he said.

LISTEN: “From Coal Town to Trail Town”

As he researched what that business would be, he started noticing a lot of activity around the Great Allegheny Passage – a 150 mile bike trail along an old rail line, connecting Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. Construction was still in progress then, but it has since been completed. Darby wrote up a business plan to open a bar and restaurant along the trail, in West Newton, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. But the response from every bank he went to was the same, “Great plan, we’re not sure about this trail,he said.

Then he went to a community development program called the Progress Fund. “They said, ‘This is exactly what we do.’ And they’ve been a fantastic partner for me, since we started,” Darby said.

Darby’s plan in West Newton was just what David Kahley, co-founder of the Progress Fund, had been looking for, “When Rod approached and said, ‘I want to do something here,’ we were jumping for joy,” Kahley said.

Kahley saw a need to support tourism in the region twenty years ago. So we started basically a non-profit bank, and making loans to small businesses,” he said.

David Kahley is the co-founder of The Progress Fund and has been its Chief Executive Officer since its inception in 1997. Photo: Pat Sergent, WVPR

Funded by a variety of state and federal agencies, private foundations (including the Benedum Foundation which has supported The Allegheny Front) and commercial banks, The Progress Fund initially invested in nearby Ohiopyle, financing a whitewater rafting facility, a bed and breakfast and other tourism projects. Today, it’s bustling with cyclists, hikers, and rafters spending money to eat, shop, and stay overnight.

Kahley wanted to try something similar in West Newton, which is only a 34-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh. Then Rod Darby walked in the door.

“Rod became one of the first people outside of Ohiopyle to start investing in the other little towns,” Kahley said.

Today, Darby’s Trailside Restaurant serves pub food, boasts a full bar, and a takeout beer shop. 28 people work here, 16 full-time. Darby said business is hopping. “And people ask me, ‘Does the trail help you out?’, and I’m like, ‘The trail is the reason I’m here,’” he said.

The Progress Fund has invested in pizza and fast food restaurants, a kayak shop, and the renovation of a bed and breakfast in West Newton, totaling nearly 2 and half million dollars.

Rod Darby says the bike trail is the reason his business exists. Photo: Progress Fund

“We have nine loans that we’ve done in West Newton, and that kind of level of investment is changing West Newton’s future around tourism,” said Kamahley. “Why nine loans here? Well that Great Allegheny Passage is a huge economic opportunity.”

Based on studies and surveys over 17 years, the Progress Fund estimates nearly a million people use the GAP trail annually. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the trail creates $40 million in revenue a year.

As the steel and coal industries have declined, Kahley said West Newton and other towns in the region have faced years of disinvestment.  The Progress Fund is trying to help them see what they do have to offer, “The resource here is the landscape and all the recreational opportunities,Kahley said. “So it is a fully invested economic development program, but it’s one that relies on the environmental qualities of the community, rather than being the extractive industry.”

Just a short walk down the trail from Darby’s restaurant sits the Bright Morning Bed and Breakfast, a series of renovated late Victorian-era homes, owned by Mary Lou Rendulic and her husband.

When they first moved in, the nearby train station was still dilapidated. This was literally considered the wrong side of the tracks when she was growing up across the river in West Newton, Rendulic said. “I remember thinking, ‘What did I do? I bought a house in a place in town where nobody would ever go.’”

“It’s a time for us in rural Appalachia to understand that we have to take responsibility for our future ourselves.”

But she soon started hearing from friends, who enjoyed the trail access, and wanted a place to stay. Rendulic and her husband started renovating with the bed and breakfast in mind, and the Progress Fund helped as they continued to expand. Now, all four Bright Morning houses stay busy with overnight guests.

A push for trail towns in West Virginia

Kent Spellman, a consultant with the Rails to Trails Conservancy, is encouraged by the the Progress Fund’s results and is pushing for this kind of development along West Virginia’s abandoned train tracks too. Some communities are suffering from something like post traumatic stress disorder, according to Spellman, because of the loss of industry in recent decades, Their future in southern West Virginia, but also in many northern West Virginia communities, has been determined by that big extractive industry, or that big steel mill, or that big chemical company. Those things are going away, and it’s a time for us in rural Appalachia to understand that we have to take responsibility for our future ourselves,” he said.

Travelers on the Great Allegheny Passage make an overnight pit stop at the Bright Morning Bed and Breakfast. Photo: The Progress Fund

Spellman is focused on completing a 230-mile rail trail from Parkersburg to Morgantown, hooking up with the Great Allegheny Passage into Pittsburgh. He sees these rail trails as the new main street, the place where people walk their dogs and talk with neighbors. Spellman said the cycling tourism is important, and can showcase the beauty and livability of West Virginia.  But it’s really just a means to building a broader economy, And if we get just a small percentage of the people who come through our communities to be thinking down the road about maybe that would be a good place to rear a family; maybe that would be a good place to bring my small business —  that is the goal of tourism. We should think of it as a recruitment tool not as an end unto itself,” he said.

Mary Popovich, the mayor of West Newton, agrees. Thanks to the trail, and the economic development around it, she says, there’s excitement in their old coal town. Even the elementary school that almost closed  is now seeing increased enrollment, “There’s a lot of houses that are getting sold to young families. This is how you help your community grow in numbers, and then you’re going to get more businesses,” she said.

The Progress Fund is hoping other former coal towns will look at West Newton, and start re-imagining their futures as trail towns.

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This report was produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting through a grant from the Benedum Foundation.