Outdoor initiatives truly can help redefine a community. Mountain biking and cycling trails turned Bentonville and northwest Arkansas into a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and spurred economic growth. Dayton, Ohio (pictured above), took advantage of its rivers and parks to create an active, vital region that changed residents’ view of their city and its possibilities. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail breathed new life into areas of the city that were decimated by years of neglect.

We can learn from these examples, and in return become a place where people want to live, work and play because of our focus on the outdoors.

Bentonville: Build It and They Will Come

Bentonville, Ark.

Last fall, many of the world’s most accomplished mountain bikers descended on Bentonville, Ark., for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) World Summit.

Of all the places in the world, why did IMBA choose Bentonville, a Midwest town of 46,000?

It made sense to Kalene Griffith, president of the city’s tourism bureau, who said northwest Arkansas has become a destination for mountain bikers everywhere because of its network of world-class, single-track trails in the Ozark Mountains.

“Visitors can have a full mountain biking experience here,” Griffith said. From epic cross-country rides to manmade obstacles for a more technical challenge, and with difficulty levels ranging from beginner to advanced, there’s something for everyone. Even young kids can ride portions of a trail called the All-American just 200 yards from downtown Bentonville. And the Railyard bike park in nearby Rogers, Ark., allows riders to progress through “features” (ramps, tabletops, rails and more) to perfect new skills.

In the Beginning
The first major mountain biking (MTB) trail in the region opened in 2007 when the Slaughter Pen Hollow Trail was completed. Funding came mostly from the Walton Family Foundation. Wal-Mart heir Tom Walton, only 23 at the time and an avid mountain biker, was influential in developing the trail, working with a local group of biking enthusiasts called Trailblazers.

With Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, the foundation supports efforts to make the region attractive to mid- and senior-level employees and their families. The group has funded local schools, green spaces and cultural experiences, and their foray into creating premier mountain biking and cycling trails has had a big impact on the area.

Build it and they will come, indeed. Trail building in northwest Arkansas has been almost constant and now attracts 3,000 to 4,000 riders per month to the MTB trails — and more than 30,000 on paved trails. The area now boasts 200 miles of trails.

Slaughter Pen has been expanded twice, and Bentonville has added three more MTB trails: Parks Springs Park (2009), Bella Vista Lake (2013) and The Back 40 (2016). This year its Coler Bike Park will be expanded from 9 miles to 17 miles.

“Mountain bikers like to experience new trail. So, we’ve tried to stay in front of the curve by adding new, sustainable trail whenever possible,” said David Wright, director of Bentonville Parks and Recreation.

Paved paths for walking and cycling are even more prevalent, and connect to many of the MTB trails. The Razorback Greenway network of trails connects Bentonville to Fayetteville, another MTB hot spot.

Cycling Transformed Our Town
The growing cycling mecca has sparked new businesses in Bentonville and nearby Fayetteville and Rogers: B&Bs, restaurants, retailers, bike outfitters and more.

“This sleepy area has just exploded with growth,” Wright said.

Cycling in Bentonville

Bentonville’s population has more than doubled since 2005, from 21,000 to over 46,000. The schools are adding 500 to 600 students each year. More than 550,000 people now live in northwest Arkansas. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville has seen student enrollment grow 36 percent since 2005, to its current population of 26,750.

The population increase is mainly due to growth at the region’s large corporations: JB Hunt, Tyson and Wal-Mart. Having world-class mountain biking and cycling paths certainly helps attract talent and students, and you don’t have to be on a trail to notice its impact.

“The cycling culture has really transformed our town,” Wright said. “In the last decade, it’s been nothing short of amazing. You see more cars with bike racks than not. In restaurants, it’s not unusual to see executives of Wal-Mart at one table and cyclists at another.”

The impact on health has also drawn attention. Benton County has been named the state’s healthiest county for the past four years, a recognition it had never earned before.

“The nice thing is that you can be on your bike all day,” Griffith said. “The trails downtown have connectivity to the mountain biking and cycling trails. It’s about two wheels instead of four wheels. Visitors don’t even have to rent a car.”

Paying for Trails
The Walton Family Foundation funded 100 percent of the MTB trails in Bentonville, through grants to the parks department and to the Trailblazers. They’ve also funded 50 percent of the paved shared-use trails.

Maintaining 75 miles of trail in Bentonville is funded through a general sales tax. To handle the work, Wright has added three people to his staff, all of whom completed IMBA training. He also relies heavily on volunteers to alert them to problems on trails.

“It’s impossible for our team to see it all, so we’re supported by FAST — Friends of Arkansas Single Track Riders. It’s a really good relationship. They carry tools with them to cut branches and clear trails,” Wright said.

Northwest Arkansas continues to evolve with the area’s growth. “Change is non-stop. There’s always something new coming,” Griffith said.

Sculptures have recently been placed along trails in Bentonville, schools have adopted cycling into their curriculum and just this year mountain bike racing was added as a fall sport at the local high schools.

“We’re creating a phenomenal cycling culture for our city and region. It’s been a collaborative effort,” Griffith said. “The Trailblazers were the visionary ones; I would’ve never guessed we would get this far.”

Dayton: From Rust Belt City to ‘Outdoor Adventure Capital’

Dayton Whitewater Park

Fifteen years ago, few would have guessed that Dayton, Ohio, would become a nationally recognized destination for cycling, mountain biking, backpacking and paddle sports. After all, the decline of manufacturing in the ’80s and ’90s had severely impacted rust belt cities like Dayton, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit. Factories closed, workers lost jobs and populations dwindled as people left for better prospects.

Today’s Dayton is transformed. The region now lays claim to the nation’s longest paved trail network — 330 miles of connected hiking and cycling. It has whitewater parks, a national water trail for paddle sports and a mountain biking park, plus numerous awards for being a bicycle-friendly community. In May, the city will host the International Trails Symposium, more proof of the reputation Dayton has earned as an outdoor destination.

All of this has resulted in an improved quality of life for its residents and some pretty concrete economic development in the form of restaurants, microbreweries, outfitters and other businesses that have sprung up to support Dayton’s new culture.

We’re Not Worthy
Greg Brumitt, a native of Edwardsville, Ill., was one of the key people to bring about change in the Dayton area. An avid cyclist and kayaker, he worked for an outdoor outfitter in Asheville, N.C., and relocated to Dayton in 2001 to start an operation there.

When he arrived, Brumitt noticed an inferiority complex among many residents. “People asked me why I moved to Dayton from Asheville. They said they were a flyover state,” he said.

Brumitt was intrigued by the abundance of outdoor resources — multiple rivers and thousands of acres of forested state parks — and saw they were underutilized. Visits to the region’s park system, Five Rivers MetroParks, were declining because there wasn’t much offered besides picnicking. MetroParks was concerned that the trend would continue, especially with the 19- to 40-year-old demographic. They wanted to shift from passive recreation to active recreation and create a more overt image.

Brumitt was motivated to help make this happen, but he wanted to educate himself on how to work with governmental planners and community leaders to create an active outdoor region. He enrolled in the University of Cincinnati to study urban planning, commuting from Dayton.

While completing his degree, Brumitt worked for MetroParks as a consultant and later as director of the program. In 2005, the park system launched 17 classes to teach skills in backpacking, climbing, paddle sports and more. They began to expand programming, staff and outdoor facilities. They added to existing trails and held events to encourage participation. Next up was a website and new slogan: “Get out and live. ”

“Our goal was to remove barriers, to welcome people who wanted to try new outdoor activities,” Brumitt said.

Gaining Traction
Launching the parks projects brought people on board and “created pride and momentum, which attracted developers and businesses. That’s when things started to happen,” Brumitt said.

The city also built a riverfront park that features a commuter bike hub with showers, a restaurant, an outdoor ice rink and rentals for skates, bikes and kayaks.

Educating the Influencers
Brumitt, who now provides consulting services through his company Active Strategies, said a key factor in creating Dayton’s outdoor recreation culture was hosting events to demonstrate the possibilities. They invited mayors and civic leaders to symposiums and outdoor events. They presented research about the benefits of active living and how an outdoor culture could improve the local economy, attract and retain businesses, and improve public health.

Paddlesports at MOX

Brumitt founded the Midwest Outdoor Experience, an annual event that allows people to try out all kinds of activities like kayaking, rowing, snow tubing and mountain biking. He also created the annual Adventure Summit, inviting speakers and exhibitors to educate the public. Both events are still going strong.

Brumitt said Dayton is proof that “you don’t need a mountain or a huge body of water to develop an outdoor experience. The real benefit has been in terms of how people in Dayton think about themselves and how other people and businesses now think about Dayton.”

Indianapolis: A Wildly Successful Cultural Trail

Indianpolis Cultural Trail

An 8-mile protected bikeway and pedestrian path in downtown Indianapolis is credited with spurring economic development beyond the city’s wildest dreams. The trail connects five different cultural districts in the city, including arts, sports and entertainment venues. Ridership is so heavy on summer days that one shop worker described it as “elbow to elbow” on the path.

The trail is 8 feet wide and features a 4-foot buffer that protects cyclists and pedestrians from vehicle traffic.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail was mostly completed in 2008. By 2014, property values within 500 feet of the trail increased 148 percent, or $1 billion. (Yes, that’s a “b” for billion.) During that same time period, the rest of Marion County had a more typical property value increase of 8 percent on average.

A visit to Indianapolis in December revealed construction cranes everywhere along the trail, building high-rise and low-rise condos, apartments and office buildings.

Gary Lynn owns two businesses on the Cultural Trail. Fountain Square Vintage & Novelty is a cavernous space overflowing with old furniture, books, household goods, toys and records. The other part of the building is Acceleration Art & Photography, an art gallery that features Lynn’s metal sculptures as well as works from other artists.

He bought the building three years ago, when the neighborhood was already reaping the benefits of being located on or near the Cultural Trail. He was able to buy the property for a song because of its condition. The 1912 building was originally a blacksmith shop, and then an auto repair shop and gas station. In the ’70s it was turned into a storage space.

“Buying the building was kind of an experiment for me,” Lynn said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the building, so I decided to sell my art.”

Lynn said both of the businesses are doing well. He frequently hosts art openings and fundraisers, complete with live music, food and drink.

Neighboring businesses include a microbrewery/restaurant, a cycling shop, an antiques store, and a yoga and wellness studio. This is a big change from a few years ago in the Fountain Square neighborhood, when buildings were dilapidated and crime was rampant.

“Houses were run down, property values were low. But when they put the trail in, the floodgates opened,” Lynn said.

Several years ago, Lynn bought two houses: one for $10,000 and another for $15,000. Now, he says, many houses are being renovated and are going for more than $250,000. HGTV has featured a few on its show “Good Bones.”

How They Did It
Turning neighborhoods around and providing cyclists with easy access to cultural districts didn’t happen overnight. Brian Payne, president and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), spearheaded the effort beginning in 2001. CICF raised $27.5 million, and federal transportation grants provided $35.5 million. No city funds were used to construct the trail.

Can this type of success happen in St. Louis? Payne thinks so.

“We’re not an outlier. If you build it, this type of development happens,” he said.

Creating an Outdoor Identity for St. Louis
Sure, we have gems like the bike and pedestrian paths in Forest Park, and rowing and cycling opportunities at Creve Coeur Lake. Lots of locals know about the mountain biking and hiking prospects at Castlewood State Park. And don’t forget about the Katy Trail, a great place for family rides and winery tours.

But when outsiders think of St. Louis, do they think of a vibrant place where outdoor activity is part of the very fabric of the community?

Great Rivers Greenway, a regional parks and trails district that encompasses St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, has long-term plans for over 500 miles of trails that connect to rivers and parks and neighborhoods. It has already built 113 miles. It’s an ambitious plan and could take several decades before it’s complete due to the sheer volume and expense.

In the meantime, what can we do to present St. Louis as a place that’s active and attractive to Millennials and employers? What lessons can we learn from the successes of Dayton, Bentonville and Indianapolis?

Ralph Pfremmer, CEO of Trailnet, says St. Louis is losing ground to the competition — other Midwest cities forwardly catering to what Millennials and many others want: active urban living connected by walking and biking networks. “It’s a way of life, and we must deeply focus on this,” Pfremmer said.

“Millennials want it, and companies want it so they can attract and retain talent,” Pfremmer said. “We aren’t talking about competing with Seattle, Portland, Chicago or New York, cities who have been planning and building on this concept for years. We’re losing out to other cities like Oklahoma City, Chattanooga, Omaha and Des Moines. We can’t afford to wait. The time to act is now.”

Pfremmer believes our region’s biggest problem is the lack of collaboration between city and county, along with over 90 competing municipal governments looking for their own piece of the pie. This has become more important than competing as one — a collective brand with a single focus. Being fragmented makes it difficult to build the infrastructure for an active, healthy community, he says.

“Why should St. Louis County be invested in St. Louis City?” Pfremmer asked rhetorically. “The bigger question is: What’s keeping us from it? Are our leaders truly centered on a collective strategy? The answer is no. Our lack of progress is a result of the fragmentation. We need to band together as one community, one St. Louis. Think of what we could achieve if we worked together.”

With this in mind, Trailnet recently announced plans for a network of on-street protected bikeways and pedestrian paths in the urban center that will stretch from the Gateway Arch to Clayton and University City, north to The Ville neighborhood and south to The Grove. Modeled on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, the St. Louis version will safely connect all people to cultural, sports and entertainment venues and places of work.

Proposed Bike Path in St. Louis

“We’ve seen a renaissance from the ground up at our front porch, the Gateway Arch. Now let’s explore our narrative and our brand. Let’s be a place where it’s easy and fun to go from the Mississippi to the Missouri; to our beautiful backyard of the Katy Trail and Missouri Wine Country,” Pfremmer said.

Trailnet is also partnering with the Katy Land Trust and Terrain magazine on an initiative called “Across STL.” The goal: to popularize St. Louis as a center for biking and walking and to inform people of the impact that connectivity plays in commerce, conservation, community vitality and tourism.

Fundraising is underway for these initiatives, with a focus on corporate support and transportation grants.

“People really want their children to stay in the area, and we can make this happen,” Pfremmer said. “Indianapolis made this leap of faith. Their data gives us the confidence to move forward.”

Author: Terri Waters is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She enjoys exploring hiking and biking trails and likes the camaraderie of organized rides as well.
Images: Courtesy of Dayton Convention & Visitors Bureau, Visit Bentonville, International Mountain Bicycling Assocaition, Visit Indy and HOK.