Connecting trails is an ecotourism investment for state

Published: Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 1:26 p.m.

Like its Italian namesake, Florida's city of Venice has a grand canal that stretches for four or five miles.

This canal is lined on both sides, not by cathedrals, and villas, but rather by a well-used greenway known as the Venetian Waterway Park.

On a recent day I battled a stiff headwind to tour the park. Expensive yachts and modest fishing skiffs alike navigated the canal, all the while flanked by dozens of cyclists, runners and strollers.

At the city's historic restored train depot, the VWP Trail connects with The Legacy Trail, which runs more than 10 miles north into Sarasota. It traverses wetlands and palmetto scrubs and affords users handy access to white sand and blue sea vistas on Casey and Siesta keys.

It is not for nothing that Venice recently joined Gainesville as the only other Florida city to be awarded silver-level bicycle friendly status by the League of American Bicyclists. Cyclists are everywhere in this beachside resort town.

Mayor John Holic told me that Venice intends to “go for the gold,” and surpass Gainesville as Florida's most bicycle-friendly city. Popular amenities like the Venetian Waterfront Park and Legacy Trail will certainly help that effort.

And Venice isn't the only community possessed by trail fever. From Fernandina Beach, on the northeastern edge of Florida's Atlantic coast, a new greenway runs the length of Amelia Island, past the expensive hotels and condos, to connect with another greenway on Big Talbot Island.

Farther to the south sections of a trail that will eventually connect St. Augustine to Palatka are open. Palatka has ambitions to become a major Florida trail hub, and work is progressing on a greenway to link that city on the St. Johns River to Keystone Heights and points north and west.

These are not pie-in-the-sky projects. They are shrewd quality-of-life investments. The city of Dunedin has undergone a downtown renaissance thanks to the Pinellas Trail. A series of trails in Central Florida had an estimated $42 million impact on the regional economy in 2010 alone. A study cited by the state's Office of Greenways and Trails indicates that every $1 million invested in multi-trail systems produces about 10 new jobs.

“The repeated annual economic impact of cyclists has been estimated to be nine times the one-time cost to build bicycle facilities,” states OGT's website.

Florida's vast and expending trail system may be our state's best kept secret. From the Nature Coast Trail that crosses the Suwannee River to the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail to a greenway that spans the Overseas Highway from Key West to the mainland, Florida can boast some of America's most extensive and impressive trail fragments.

And that's the problem, Florida's trails are so fragmented that their full economic and recreational potential remains unrealized. This despite a longstanding state greenways master plan that envisions connecting many of these isolated segments into an “integrated statewide network.”

Nature-based tourism, “ecotourism” if you will, is fast becoming an economic powerhouse. A Visit Florida study indicates that nearly 75 percent of the tourists who come here participate in nature-based activities — cycling, kayaking, bird-watching, hiking and the like. Tourists who are interested in multi-day cycle tours, but who are afraid to venture out on the state's congested highways, constitute a potentially huge untapped market.

All of which is good reason for Gov. Rick Scott to not veto a $50 million allocation in the new proposed state budget. That money will be spent to begin linking up a series of existing Central Florida greenways into a 200-mile “Coast to Coast Connector” from Tampa Bay to Titusville.

This was not one of Scott's budget priorities, but his Department of Environmental Protection supports bridging the 72-miles of gaps necessary to make the connector a reality.

“If you have a large trail that doesn't have bits and pieces missing from it, it really becomes an attraction,” Patrick Gillespie, DEP spokesman, told the Tampa Tribune. “Then you've got people staying in those communities, spending money in those communities, and that's where you get your economic impact.”

Scott has made economic development a cornerstone of his administration. Spending $50 million to connect fragments of trails is a good investment in Florida's ecotourism future.

If Scott doubts that potential, he ought to take a day off and cycle the Venetian Waterfront Park and Legacy Trail. The experience will certainly put a smile on his face ... and quite possibly put dollar signs in his eyes.

Ron Cunningham is the former editorial page editor of The Sun. He is also executive director of Bike Florida.

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