Cycists of all ages and abilities can enjoy the Virginia Capital Trail. Photo by Sarah Walor
On any given weekend in the spring and summer, the racks outside Cul's Courthouse Grille in Charles City County are stacked with bicycles, and the restaurant is abuzz with spandex-clad diners.
"Without the trail, none of this would have been possible," Cullen Jenkins says of his restaurant, which opened in 2009 along one of the completed stretches of the Virginia Capital Trail, a 50-mile pedestrian and bicycle path that will run from Williamsburg to Richmond. Cul's employs 15 people, and about a quarter of its business comes from cyclists on the weekends.
"It's very simple," Jenkins says. "If we don't have [people] in the seats spending money, we're not going to be open."
Bolstering locally owned businesses is one of many benefits that the trail will provide, says Beth Weisbrod, executive director of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation. When it is completed, probably in October 2014, the trail will connect Virginia's past and present capitals, starting in Williamsburg and traversing through Jamestown, Sherwood Forest and Charles City to end in downtown Richmond. As they cycle along the paved path that runs parallel to the Route 5 corridor, a national scenic byway, travelers will likely spend money at coffee shops, restaurants and accommodations in the towns the trail runs through.
"The economic-development potential of trails like this is so proven in any commnity that has a trail like this," Weisbrod says.
The 34.4-mile Virginia Creeper Trail that runs through Damascus has attracted 130,000 annual visitors to the Southwest Virginia town of 2,000, according to a study published by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Day-trippers spent an average of $17 per trip, and overnight users spent $82 per person, per trip. In analyzing where this money was spent, the study found that about 40 percent went into accommodations and food, while 20 percent went into entertainment and recreation. The trail generates $1.59 million in annual spending and supports approximately 27 new full-time jobs.
"Everywhere there are trails like this, they see the same increases," Weisbrod says.
In October, an infrared counter at the Jamestown trailhead on the Capital Trail recorded 6,000 cyclists. Moreover, 69 percent of people who answered the trailside survey said that the existence of the trail played a "large role" in their decision to visit the area.
About 17 miles of the trail have been completed, including two miles in downtown Richmond, seven miles in Charles City County and eight miles in James City County. The Sherwood phase is scheduled next, with completion of that section set for June 2013. Each year in May, the Cap2Cap riding event sponsored by the trail foundation takes place, with three distances — 100, 50 and 25 miles — available, plus a 15-mile family ride on the trail in Williamsburg.
The trail, which is mostly funded through federal transportation dollars that are designated for trail construction, will end up costing about $50 million. "Laying asphalt costs a lot of money, apparently,"
Weisbrod says, adding that much of the money goes toward building bridges over wetlands. "This amount of money is a small investment that will come back in a short amount of time."
Recently, Weisbrod met a couple from New Zealand on the trail in Charles City County who were a few days away from completing their cross-country bicycle tour from Oregon to Yorktown. The trail, which is already distinguished as part of the TransAmerica Bike Route (U.S. Bicycle Route 76), will continue to attract bicycle tourists from around the world and country, as well as promote tourism within Virginia, Weisbrod says.
"I really think this trail is going to change the way people think of Richmond," she says. "Not only will it put us on the maps that people around the world will use to plan their cycling vacation, it will offer people who live here a safe option for walking, running and riding."