Lois Turco likes the idea of attracting more bike-riding tourists to Jefferson County and its wealth of Colonial and Civil War history.
Nationwide, bicyclists make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism industry, according to Turco, a Shepherdstown retiree who co-created Freedom's Run, the marathon launched in 2009 that on Oct. 13 will again bring thousands of runners to Shepherdstown.
"With our history and natural beauty, we have tremendous potential to draw bicyclists not just from across the Northeast but even internationally," Turco said. "It's a perfect way to highlight Jefferson County as a heritage area. We can create a destination that bicyclists will want to return to again and again."
As with Freedom's Run, the addition of more bike trails in the Panhandle will inject more tourists' dollars into the local economy, Turco notes.
During their visits, these cyclists tend to patronize restaurants, make day trips to the Jefferson County Museum and other history-rich stops as well as recreational sites such as River Riders. Many also stay overnight in bed and breakfasts, hotels or campgrounds, she said.
Just as Freedom's Run has put the spotlight on the importance of working to stay healthy, more bike paths will make it fun and easy for local residents to get out and exercise, Turco said.
"It's tourism, but also a quality of life enhancement for people who live here," she said.
Paths that provide safe, low-stress cycling are seen as a key to attracting cycling tourists as are connections with existing towns – rather than simply a path for riding from Point A to Point B.
It's been nearly three years since the 10-mile bike path along W.Va. 9 opened to the cyclists, and Turco and others in the community want to see the popular roadway expanded.
One idea: connect Shepherdstown with Harpers Ferry by extending the bike path that parallels W.Va. 9 from near the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg to the Potomac Marketplace shopping center in Ranson all the way to where U.S. 340 corridor brings visitors into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Another proposal would connect the bike path along W.Va. 9 with the C&O Canal through Shepherdstown and then with the Great Allegheny Passage, the popular 150-mile rail trail in Pennsylvania. Others have suggested extending the bike path from Martinsburg to Berkeley Springs alongside a new, four-lane W.Va. 9 through Morgan County.
While state transportation officials have said money for such projects is tight – the state gets 10 times more requests than available dollars – but Turco and others point out that by investing in ways for West Virginians to be healthier, the state would save in healthcare costs in the long run.
The potential of attracting more tourists to West Virginia also makes bike paths a smart way to spend government dollars, she said. Plus, cyclists make an especially attractive type of tourist, according to the California-based non-profit advocacy group American Trails.
Bicycle tourists tend to be older, well-educated and more affluent. In a survey of bicyclist tourists visiting the Outer Banks in North Carolina, more than 80 percent reported having a college degree, according to American Trails. The organization said that 78 percent said those answering that survey said their household income was $75,000 or higher.
Turco has a track record of success. Freedom's Run – the event she created along with Harpers Ferry family physician and marathon champion Dr. Mark Cucuzzella after the two bumped into each other at a Shepherdstown bakery and began to talk about how to do more to promote health and heritage tourism – in just its second year became West Virginia's largest running event.