Study says bike trail could bring visitors, millions of dollars
by Tim Lockette
Sep 27, 2012 | 9414 views |  0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Coldwater Mountain is seen from the air in this May 2010 file photo (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Coldwater Mountain is seen from the air in this May 2010 file photo (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
When Chris Smith spotted a California license plate in the parking lot of Coldwater Mountain’s bike trail, he suspected Anniston was onto something big.

And when he met the owners of that California tag — a couple who were selling bike-related products — he knew for sure.

“They were going to bike shops around the Southeast, and the people there always said ‘You’ve got to ride this trail,’” said Smith, who maintains state properties for the Forever Wild program.

Smith said that before that moment he’d never considered the economic impact of Coldwater Mountain, a 4,000-acre nature preserve and bike trail on the rim of Oxford and Anniston – though he knew the tourists spent money here.

Now there’s a report, released Thursday by Jacksonville State University and the Calhoun County Community Development Corporation, that predicts exactly how much money mountain bikers could spend in the area.

By the study’s most conservative estimate, bikers will spend $1.2 million per year on their Coldwater trips. Or they could spend as much as $3.8 million. Those numbers are based on visitors to the mountain’s current 11-mile system of trails – not the 60 miles that trail developers hope to build.

“The parking lot is consistently full on weekends,” said Mike Poe, an officer of the Northeast Alabama Bicycling Association. “It generally takes more than 11 miles of trail to attract people from out-of state. It usually takes 30 miles.”

The bike trail, built on a tract of undeveloped land purchased by the state’s Forever Wild preservation program, opened in June. The opening didn’t have the flash and fanfare of a factory ribbon-cutting, but there’s evidence the word got out to the people who matter – bicycling enthusiasts from around the country. Among other things, Poe noted, the trail was featured on the cover of the bicycling magazine “Dirt Rag,” which featured it in a story on “great trails in unlikely places.”

Part of what’s unlikely about Coldwater is its location, hard by the urban street grid of Anniston and Oxford.

“There’s no trail quite like it in the country,” said Joe Jankoski, director of the Community Development Corporation. Jankoski said few bike trails are so close to a city’s downtown – and few are so pristine.

“Usually, on a trail site, there are already old bike trails, or equestrian trails,” he said. On Coldwater, he said, trail designers started fresh.

The study predicts the trail will attract between 50,000 and 150,000 visitors per year, most of them from within a 100-mile radius around the town. About 1 in 20, the study says, will come from farther away.

Mountain of money

An online survey of mountain bikers suggests that Coldwater’s potential riders have a lot of money to spend, and want to spend it in Anniston. JSU researchers sent a survey link to 10,000 members of mountain biking associations, and got more than 800 responses. Eighty-eight percent said they’d be interested in biking the Coldwater trail, and 42 percent reported a household income of more than $100,000 per year.

An interest in capturing that money brought city officials to the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce Thursday to hear the results of the study. Poe used the opportunity to make a pitch for more funds to develop the trail.

Trail developers have about $300,000 in grants that can be used on the next phase of development, which is expected to add another 20 miles to the trail by June. That, Poe said, would push the trail above the 30-mile mark, which he said was a “magic number” in attracting riders.

City Councilman Jay Jenkins noted that the study doesn’t include the potential impact of regular competitions on the mountain. While there’s no major competition at Coldwater now, trail advocates say that’s part of the mountain’s future.

With a full 60 miles of trail, bike shop owner Patrick Wigley said, an event Coldwater could unseat Birmingham’s Bump ’n’ Grind as the state’s biggest mountain bike event.

“That brings in the real daddy-os of racing, and the mamacitas,” he said.

Poe noted that the $300,000 probably wouldn’t be enough to complete next summer’s work. And more money would be needed, he said, to build out the entire trail — including a second trail entrance that could bring more people to the mountain.

Jankoski said the trail entrance now has a 38-car parking lot that is full every weekend. Developers plan to set up another entrance, with as many as 150 parking spaces and kids’ biking area, on land donated by Solutia. The chemical company, formerly known as Monsanto, funded the bike trail study as well. The second site would also have restrooms and other amenities not available at the current trail head.

“This will be a destination-quality site,” Poe said of the proposed second entrance.

Local visitors

Trail advocates said they hoped to get Anniston residents on the trail, too, by creating a number of smaller entry points, not marketed to tourists, that would allow quick access from local neighborhoods.

Firefighters have their plans for the trail, too. Several Anniston emergency responders showed up at the Thursday announcement, in uniform, to hear more about the trail’s future.

“We just want to know what’s coming our way,” said Anniston firefighter Michael Wiedeman. Firefighters have been developing a response plan for the trail since last month, when they got a call from a biker stranded on the mountain. He said the Fire Department has plans to buy all-terrain vehicles to respond to calls on the trails.

Wiedeman said he didn’t know the cost of that equipment. The study says the trail could generate as much as $300,000 in sales tax annually.

Jankoski said he could see Coldwater Mountain becoming a “mecca for mountain bikers” if everything works out right. And he hinted that it could even bring new residents to the city. Jankoski said he has heard from bikers who are interested in Anniston’s proposed “mow-to-own” policy, which, if implemented, would let people take over abandoned properties if they keep those properties in good condition for a set period of time.

“They’re saying, ‘When you’ve got that in place, let us know,’” he said.

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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