Gresham

Bike tourism in East County: 'The momentum is already there'

Bike tourism in East County: 'The momentum is already there'
Photo courtesy sheffield_tiger on Flickr (Creative Commons).

GRESHAM, Ore. - How big is bike tourism in Oregon?

Big enough that the folks in East County are taking a good hard look at how it might drive economic development in their neck of the woods.

"We kept going back to the natural resources and biking really came up," said Alison Hart, head of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. She also chairs a tourism advisory committee, which has been exploring ways to bring more tourism dollars to East County.

Hart believes the growing interest in destination cycling is a good way to market East County and what it has to offer. And now she's got some money to take the idea further.

The chamber was recently awarded a $95,000 grant from Metro and they also received $50,000 from a Visitor Development Fund through Travel Portland. Add a little money from the cities of Gresham and Troutdale, and from the chamber, and there is $169,000 to work with.

Of course, that's not a whole lot of money when you think about the big picture of what East County is trying to do. But you have to realize that the idea isn't necessarily to throw money at constructing new trails or creating new bike lanes along existing roads, although there will likely be some recommendations made along the way.

"We're doing an assessment of all the trails in the area - where do they stand, where do they have gaps, where do we see the needs, where are the connections," said Hart.

Instead, supporters of the idea hope to leverage what East County already has. The region is an access point to the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, for example, and there is the popular Springwater Corridor that winds through the area. So basically, a lot of the pieces are already in place and the tourism folks would just need to shift their gears and promote the area a little differently.

The committee is looking to Travel Oregon, which has a lot of experience promoting tourism, for guidance.

"Travel Oregon is really taking a lead, not just in the state but around the country, with bicycle tourism and has a lot of really progressive programs," Hart said.

All of this is in the beginning stages and there is a lot to be done before anything can happen. The first step will be to put together focus groups with local businesses, bike enthusiasts and others to generate ideas. That'll happen in the coming months. In November, the committee plans to hold a 'Bicycle Tourism Studio' to go over all of the ideas and come up with a plan. By mid-January, they hope to have a final report ready and then be able to begin implementation by the summer of 2015.

Why Bike Tourism?

Now of course, all the bike buzz going on in Portland and across the state has got some folks riled up (with anything, there are detractors). We asked Hart what she might say to those who would question the effort to focus on bike tourism instead of other projects.

"I think it depends on how you look at it," she said. "There are definitely all kinds of needs in our society - transportation needs, social needs etc. But anything that we do to help augment or improve the infrastructure here in East County makes it a more livable area and therefore more attractive for people to come here, to bring their business here, to move their family here. So in many ways, it adds to livability in the community and that's how we look at it from an economic development standpoint."

Hart also pointed to a recent study prepared for Travel Oregon by Dean Runyan Associates that outlines how much of an impact cyclists have on our economy.

According to the report, which took a look at 2012's numbers, around $400 million was brought into the state last year for accommodations, food services, groceries, motor fuel, cycling event fees, bicycle repairs, clothing and gear. And it supported around 4,600 jobs. Add to that the nearly $18 million in local and state taxes (the taxes you pay for lodging, etc.) and that's quite an industry.

But what about the Columbia River Gorge/Mount Hood region, which would benefit East County? The numbers are good - those who recreate there are spending around 14.8 percent of their travel expenditures on biking - more than they are anywhere else in the state.

"There is already some momentum there," Hart said. "So for me, it's about how we can take that momentum and grow it."

Map and data courtesy of the Dean Runyon Associates report titled The Economic Significance of Bicycle-Related Travel in Oregon, April 2013.

Others are Exploring the Idea Too

The folks in East County aren't the only ones jumping on the bike tourism bandwagon. For example, we recently highlighted an effort by the towns of Estacada and Detroit to designate a highway that connects the towns as a Scenic Bikeway.

The state's Scenic Bikeways program, established in 2011, is modeled after the "Scenic Byways" program that's geared toward people traveling in vehicles. The two towns have been working together for a couple of years on getting the scenic bikeway designation.

The town of Detroit relies heavily on tourism, which is its economic base. They are always looking for ways to extend their busy season (which runs from approximately May to September) and add recreational opportunities to what they already offer. And they're not just trying to attract more Oregonians.

"It's hopefully going to draw people globally, not just locally or regionally," said Michael Miller, co-owner of The Experience Store, which rents kayaks and paddle boards in Detroit. "There are a lot of international bike riders that would love to have a destination such as Detroit. And that bikeway - it's a beautiful path. It's lightly traveled by cars and trucks and it's perfect for cycling."

While Detroit is hoping to cash in on cyclists staying the night, stopping to eat and perhaps tuning up their bikes, Estacada has a slightly different goal. They would like to be the anchor point for the proposed route and want cyclists to see their town as a place where they can get outfitted for their trip.

"We hope they'll stop for supplies and amenities that will make their visit better," said Phil Lingelbach, chair of the Estacada Development Association.

So where are the two towns in the process?

After submitting their initial application, the route was rated and met the criteria for a scenic bikeway, according to Alex Phillips with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. She coordinates the bikeways program and said the next step is for both Estacada and Detroit to submit a bikeway plan that outlines how they would incorporate the designation into what they already do.

Once the bikeway plan is ironed out, an official meeting will be held to get input from the public (although Phillips said they encourage input throughout the entire process). Finally, the proposed route will go before the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission for a vote.

More stories on biking in Oregon: