The argument for trail money

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 88 views 

As you may be aware, Fort Smith voters will go to the polls on May 12. The ballot will include renewal of the 1% sales tax that for the last 30 years, having first been approved by the voters in 1985 and renewed in 1995 and 2005, has been used for streets, bridges and associated drainage. This time, voters are being given the opportunity, with a second ballot question, to allocate 5% of that tax for trails/bikeways.

The city first adopted a Trails and Greenways Master Plan in 2004. This plan includes 87 miles of paved, multi-use trails that can be used for walking, running or riding a bike. Because of a lack of funding, little progress has been made. At a series of public meetings held by the city’s engineering department last year, citizen input showed that a trails and bikeways system needs to be continuous and connected. Short, isolated sections, what I call “trails to nowhere,”, are not desirable.

Knowing the challenges of funding the entire Master Plan, the Trails and Greenways Committee identified what we believe are the 35 most essential miles, plus on-street configurations such as bike lanes and shared marked lanes or “sharrows” to provide the desired connections. All areas of the city will have some sort of access when this plan is implemented.

Why is this such an essential project? With all the other needs our city has, why would we want to do that? The reason is economic development. There are numerous examples of the economic benefits realized by cities that have extensive trail systems, both across the nation and in our region. The reason for this is that trails attract people and development tends to follow people. How many people? A 2012 Walton Family Foundation survey showed that 63% of the residents of Northwest Arkansas have used the trails systems there.

Retail firms find that locations near trails are good for business. The City Wire has reported on one such establishment in northwest Arkansas that estimates 25-30% of its business comes from those using the trails, either on foot or on bike. In many cities, real estate developers want to locate their projects near trail systems because people using the trails want to live near them.

On a much larger scale, many companies find trail systems attractive because they can help attract the young and mid-career professionals that they want to hire. In October 2014, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the state agency that works on attracting new industry to Arkansas, cited trail systems as a feature that cities need in order to be competitive in attracting new companies. All of this adds up to new job creation. In a July 2014 Bloomberg news story, it was reported that a nationwide study done by the University of Massachusetts showed $1 million invested in bicycling infrastructure generated 11.4 jobs as compared to 7.8 jobs for road-only projects.

At the recent The City Wire Compass Conference, one of the panelists said Fort Smith’s top export is its young people. A recent letter to the editor in the local newspaper, from a young person who grew up in Fort Smith, noted that there is little to attract young people back to Fort Smith. He also said that our downtown isn’t thriving like those in Little Rock, Conway or Northwest Arkansas. A spokesman for the Springdale Chamber of Commerce said this about the impact of the Razorback Greenway on the city’s downtown: “the Greenway Trail has given hope and potential for investment” and has brought about “a major change in attitude.”

Springdale’s downtown saw $2.6 million in new investment following the announcement of the Greenway, before the trail was even built, and the Chamber attributed it mostly to the trail. As for Conway, a member of their City Council told me that Hewlett Packard listed Conway’s trail/bikeways system as one of three reasons why HP located a large customer service and tech support facility there a few years ago.

Another recent letter to the editor writer said he and his family regularly travel to Fayetteville, Little Rock and Tulsa to walk, run or ride bikes on the trails systems there. In recent months, I have had a number of people tell me they do that as well, and on a regular basis. Most are middle-aged, with several of them retired, and are wanting to have an active, healthy lifestyle. What do they take with them when they visit these other cities? Their wallets. And while there, they spend money afterwards on lunch or dinner and probably do some other shopping. That is money leaving our local economy. Every dollar spent in those cities is a dollar that those other cities collect sales tax on rather than Fort Smith.

An interesting example of a city outside our region is Duluth, Minn. It is a rust-belt city of 87,000 that is seeing a rebirth. Mayor Don Ness credits much of it to the 60 miles of trials they have built, with plans for 100 miles by 2017. He says it appeals to “young people. Young families, entrepreneurs…” Before this, Duluth had a “persistent sense of pessimism and lack of confidence…” Another report about Duluth said the city “used to struggle to attract professionals such as doctors or engineers” but noted that is changing. Mayor Ness attributed quality of life amenities, such as their trail system, with attracting the $70 million headquarters of a national retailer.

A final benefit noted by Ness is that attracting new people has broadened the tax base, resulting in more tax revenue to help pay for city services. Anyone notice any similarities between Duluth before they built their trail system and Fort Smith?

Therefore, I ask that you consider supporting expanding trails/bikeways in Fort Smith. This will help make Fort Smith more attractive to people and companies considering locating here. It will help attract people to the riverfront and promote development there since a section of the proposed trails/bikeways system follows the Arkansas River and connects to downtown. It would help attract and retain our top export, i.e. our young people, and help attract and retain professionals such as doctors and engineers. It would match at least one of the attractions that other cities in our region have to offer.

Please join me in voting FOR the 1% sales tax renewal and YES for trails and bikeways.