PA WILDS: Endurance events flourish, boost local economies
Like many small towns in the Pennsylvania Wilds, Foxburg has a lot going for it. Historic stone buildings overlook the National Wild & Scenic Allegheny River. A bike trail winds along the water and through the woods. An authentic mix of family-run businesses fill the town’s buildings: a nice hotel and restaurant, an artisan chocolate maker, a pizza shop, winery, arts center and outfitter, not to mention Pennsylvania’s only button museum.
Chances are if you visit Foxburg, pop. 200, you’ll want to visit again, or at least tell friends. But first they have to convince you to come. And one way Foxburg has found to do that is by making you run.
It started as an experiment, a 5K “Nature Fest” run in the dead of February to attract visitors during the off season. Tourism stakeholders filled goody bags with coupons. They expected 25 runners; 140 showed up, filling the Foxburg Inn, according to its manager, Mike Vereb, who helped spearhead the event.
“It was incredible,” Vereb said. “Over 30 people took coupons to the Foxburg winery. There was over a two-hour wait at Allegheny Grille.”
That race has now turned into a 6-race series that spans the year, with many local business sponsors and proceeds going to support three local volunteer fire stations, a wildlife rehabilitation center and other causes in the community.
Foxburg is not alone. All across the Pennsylvania Wilds endurance and adventure races are springing up or growing giving a boost to local economies and fueling regional nature tourism development and community revitalization efforts.
The Pennsylvania Wilds boasts 29 state parks, eight state forests and a 500,000-acre national forest and many of the race events traverse these public lands and waterways, helping unlock the region for thousands of visitors and residents who might otherwise find it daunting to access alone. Often grueling and set against stunning backdrops, many participants become repeat visitors or convince friends to come, organizers say.
“That word of mouth stuff is pretty powerful,” said Sinnemahoning State Park manager Lisa Bainey, who has watched a paddling race in her area double in size.
Events Everywhere for Everybody
In Tioga County there is now the Green Monster Trail Challenge and Pine Creek Challenge. In Clearfield County, a local conservation group is building on the success of their Upper West Branch Triathlon, Dam Scramble and Dam Darkness Night Trail Challenge by adding the Chinklacamoose Marathon. Warren County now has a Running Revolution and Cinco de Mayo run and a “Gran Fondo of the Alleghenies” while its Kwik Fill Kinzua Classic bike race continues to grow. Pennsylvania Kinzua Pathways, a local volunteer group pushing for a world-class mountain biking course on the Allegheny National Forest, is already eyeing a mountain bike race after a recent study out of Oregon showed such events bring hundreds of thousands of dollars into host communities. Cameron County is planning a 50K Ultra Run.
Race enthusiasts in Clinton County, who put the Pennsylvania Wilds on the map for trail challenges with their wildly-popular Hyner View Trail Challenge, Megatransect and Prowl the Sproul events have now launched the Frozen Snot Run a 12-mile run over a mountain during the coldest week of the year. Nearly 200 showed up for the inaugural, despite a snowstorm.
The list goes on. The PA Wilds Tourism Marketing Corp recently added a “Challenge Your Endurance” section to PaWilds.com, the tourism site for the region, to accommodate the growing number of races in the region and visitor demand for information about them.
“Registration for several of the events opens and closes within a few hours because of their overwhelming popularity,” said Marketing Corp president Dave Morris. “Our sense is these events help to brand and define this part of the state to those who have an interest in that kind of outdoor recreation.”
Several race organizers have started using the Pennsylvania Wilds logo on banners, fliers and other marketing materials, and partners involved in regional tourism development say they hope to see more of that. Such logo uses are free.
Businesses Get Fit
Several outfitting businesses in the region important partners in regional tourism development that face business challenges due to their seasonality and susceptibility to weather fluctuations – – are thrilled to see the momentum. In an industry notable for its many unpredictable variables, vows like the Hyner’s “We run rain or shine, hell or high water!!!” are a welcome addition.
On the eastern side of the region, Wild Asaph Outfitters co-owner Jennifer Bornman helps organize and sponsor the Green Monster and Pine Creek challenges. She said her outdoor gear store, in downtown Wellsboro, serves as the race packet pickup point. Last year, 150 people came through her door for the Green Monster. “Most of them bought something either because they needed or wanted it or because they like to support the sponsors,” she said. That kind of foot traffic makes a big difference to a small business in a rural area, she said.
Country Squirrel Outfitters used to be located in Colorado, where endurance events are a regular occurrence. Owners Steve and Miranda Putt moved the business to Ridgway, in the middle of the PA Wilds, two years ago and were surprised to see such a vast number of endurance events in the region. “It seems as though the list continues to grow every year – which is awesome,” said Steve Putt.
Country Squirrel has expanded its endurance product line to meet demand. “This is a little outside of our original business plan, but it’s great for us because it gives us an opportunity to showcase products and be involved in events that we’re really passionate about,” Putt said. “We run marathons and ultra-marathons, participate in triathlons, and do century rides ourselves so anytime we can talk to a customer or visitor about the things we enjoy and have first-hand experience with, we relish the opportunity.”
Allegheny Outfitters, in Warren, sees a similar bump. Socks, CamelBak’s, fruit chews, hats with brims to keep the sun at bay. A lot of last minute shoppers, said owner Piper VanOrd, who like the Putts, competes in many of the races. “We just opened our store in 2011 and that first year we sold eight compasses in two days and could have sold five more we just didn’t have them in stock. Our product lines and outfitting services are growing with the events.”
VanOrd said people come from all over the country for races in the PA Wilds. “We have so much to offer in terms of outdoors experiences,” she said. “It’s just so cool our region is becoming known for this stuff. And there’s a lot of pride in that. Our community just put together a ‘mapdana’ a bandana with a fun map on it of all the outdoor recreation assets and races we have here in Warren County. The things are just flying off the shelf. People want to be involved and supportive. It’s just awesome to see.”
Outfitters aren’t the only businesses that benefit. Hotels, restaurants and other small businesses, do too. During the Mega and Hyner events in Clinton County major hotels are booked solid. The races each attract over a thousand participants. “It’s like college graduation or PSU football weekend,” said Peter Lopes, chamber and tourism director for the Clinton County Economic Partnership.
Communities across the PA Wilds are catching on. Many of the new or growing race events are winning widespread community support for the boost they give local businesses and how they inspire healthy living and pride of place.
In the northwest corner of the PA Wilds, the Kinzua Country Tango takes participants on a grueling run-bike-swim-orienteer-paddle course through the Allegheny National Forest, over the famous Kinzua Dam, across the Allegheny Reservoir and down the National Wild & Scenic Allegheny River. Race Director Thad Turner, who runs the local YMCA, modeled it after training events he did as a Navy Seal. Participants can do the race solo or with a relay team, earning collector coins for each leg, as well as overall place trophies.
The Tango has grown from 70 people in 2007 to 450 today, with racers coming from more than 15 states and four countries and most traveling with friends and family to support them.
“The race brings together thousands of people for a healthy fun day,” Turner said. “Families hold their reunions around the event. Companies use it to team build. It inspires hundreds to stay fit throughout the year. Hotels are filled, restaurants are busy, and it brings the community to life.”
Whirley-DrinkWorks!, a local manufacturing company, has helped sponsor the Tango for five years through design and brochure support, team donations and signage. Whirley CEO Lincoln Sokolski, an avid cyclist, competes in the race every year and has convinced many friends and colleagues to join him – a fact they don’t let him forget.
“You’re looking for Lincoln Sokolski?” wrote John Beard, a Senior Vice President at Northwest Savings Bank, in a recent email, “The guy who got us into this event in which we suffer so horribly every year? That Lincoln Sokolski? I’ll see if I can find his email..”
Sokolski called the Tango “one of the best outdoor events in Warren County,” for the way it connects people to the outdoors and promotes health and wellness, teamwork, commitment and fun. “It combines all levels of racers, from highly-talented competitive athletes to beginner athletes who are finding their way back into shape,” Sokolski said. “Save the date August 3rd, 2013 and come out and participate as long as you bring a positive attitude I guarantee a good time!”
“We want everyone to be able to enjoy the incredible resources of this area,” said Beard, of Northwest Savings, the Tango’s main sponsor this year. “We don’t think the race is about having a best time it’s about having YOUR best time and trying to do something you’ve never done before. It has become a community event to share good times in a spirit of fun and success.”
The God’s Country Marathon, the second-oldest marathon in the state and one of the “Top Ten Toughest” in the country according to Runner’s World Magazine, last year added a half marathon to its main event, attracting 100 new runners to Potter County.
Many runners in the God’s County Marathon have become repeat visitors, said David Brooks of the Potter County Visitor Association, which organizes the event. “We have a strong base of regulars,” Brooks said. “I know most of them by name, which actually surprises them when I do.”
That kind of attention to detail goes a long way in racing circles, said Lisa Bainey, manager at Sinnemahoning State Park, which has co-sponsored the Cameron County Canoe & Kayak Classic since 2005. Race participation in the Classic has doubled in recent years, from 150 to more than 300. Bainey, an avid paddler, has competed in it many times herself.
“I love it,” she said. “What better place to be than paddling than the Driftwood Branch and seeing elk, deer, bald eagles and other wildlife? Great competition, great camaraderie In the heart of the PA Wilds, you know you have just paddled through one of the prettiest watersheds north of I-80.”
Bainey said some keys to the event’s growth are that is very well organized and reasonably priced; has a different theme each year that ties into characteristics the region is known for lumbering, watersheds, wildlife and “has cool prizes and a real feeling of community spirit.”
Volunteers are the backbone of the events, organizers say.
“These are locals that love spending time finding trails and donating their time and effort to improve trails so others who enjoy outdoor recreation can come here and experience our mountains, forests, rivers and views,” Lopes said of the volunteers behind the Hyner, Mega and other races in his area. “In the early years, groups of volunteers would meet almost monthly to talk about how to offer a top-rate challenge. These folks like to beat the “heck” out of you during the challengethen turn around and offer a first rate social event after the racing is over. Each of these races may have a hundred locals helping out.”
It was a sentiment echoed in other parts of the PA Wilds. Jennifer Bornman said numerous partners come together to make the Green Monster and Pine Creek trail challenges happen DCNR, the local chamber and visitor bureau, the Tioga County Partnership for Community Health, emergency workers, high school and middle school track teams and others.
“It was really a great thing to see what a community can do when it comes together,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you collaborate.”
Tataboline Enos travels the Pennsylvania Wilds working with small business owners, entrepreneurs and residents who are helping grow the region’s outdoor recreation economy. She lives in a small farming town in the northwest corner of the PA Wilds with her husband and two young sons.