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Trail has been great for Damascus, Va.

Re: “Correcting the rail-trail record”:

I would like to provide a bit of information regarding Bill Branson of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society’s “Correcting the rail-trail record” column from Jan 7. I think that his using a 20-year-old study is a bit misleading in his arguments against the removal of the rail lines between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid.

I have not had the pleasure of visiting your “neck of the woods,” and I am not making a judgment as to whether a multi-use recreational rail-trail or commercial rail service would be more impactful to tourism in your area. However, I would like to correct and inform about his outdated information as it relates to the economic impact of rails-to-trails conversions, the Virginia Creeper Trail specifically.

The Virginia Creeper Trail is located in the far southwest corner of Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains close to the Tennessee and North Carolina borders. The town of Damascus sits at the midpoint of the 34-mile-long trail. It is known as the Heart of the Virginia Creeper because it has become the destination for the hundreds of thousands of people who want to experience the famous 17-mile downhill bike ride.

In 1998, the last manufacturing plant in this town closed, and the only other one near the town was near closing. Most of the buildings located along the town’s main street were vacant. At that time, the Virginia Creeper Trail was just 10 years old. In February 1998, my partner and I opened a bicycle retail and rental shop with shuttle service for the VCT in the town of Damascus, Virginia (population 950). We were the third business in the community that catered to tourists of the VCT. We opened with two employees, 15 rental bikes and one shuttle van. Today, as we celebrate the start of our 22nd year in business, we now have over 35 employees, hundreds of rental bikes and 18 shuttle vans. There are another five companies with an additional 25 shuttle vans and hundreds more rental bikes, dozens of vacation rentals, restaurants, coffee shop, grocery store, etc., and still no stop lights in the town. In addition to that, I am planning my sixth business catering to the tourists of the VCT.

It is also important to note that Damascus is known as “Trail Town, USA” because it is the crossroads to many national, regional and local trails (most notably the Appalachian Trail and the 76 TransAm bike route). There are, and have been for decades, hundreds of miles of recreational trails available for use in the region. This did not translate to users spending their money in the region. At least not until the VCT and the businesses that were created to serve it flourished. For Mr. Branson to say that the VCT has had “MINIMAL incremental economic impact” is false, misleading and self-serving. The VCT is directly responsible for tens of millions of dollars per year. This community owes most everything, and the communities surrounding the trail all owe something, to the fact that the VCT exists as a recreation destination. People have visited the town and later decided to relocate to live in the community. Property values have increased, job opportunities have increased, and business opportunities continue to be available to those who take advantage of it.

Michael Wright lives in Damascus, Virginia.