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Increases seen in outdoor recreation a ‘pleasant problem’

Times Observer file photo by Brian Ferry Competitors churn up the waters of Chapman Lake at the start of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Association National Youth Marathon. The races were one of several events coordinated by the Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry last year. All had a common theme in a COVID-19 world - they were outside.

Mass shutdowns in 2020 brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people outside.

Camping skyrocketed. Outdoor recreation entities reported banner years.

Was 2020 a blip on that radar or part of a new trend?

Even with 2021 in the books, it may be too soon to tell.

“The general narrative that we have heard is that 2021 rec use was a touch below 2020 but higher than 2019,” Rich Hatfield, Bradford District Ranger on the Allegheny National Forest, said.

Photo courtesy of Gary Lester COVID-19 shutdowns resulted in booming usage of recreation sites such as this, the Trails at Jakes Rocks. Officials say 2021 didn’t match 2020 in terms of overall recreation use but note that 2021 did exceed 2019, the most recent year not impacted by the pandemic.

Staff at Chapman State Park told the Times Observer that “park attendance and reservations were still up in 2021 over their historic averages of 2019 and prior, but the 2021 numbers did not surpass 2020.”

That was a trend seen across the state park system, they said.

“The tourism scene heading into 2022 has never been healthier in terms of outdoor recreation,” Warren County Visitors Bureau Executive Director Dave Sherman added.

“We’ve had businesses tell us they’ve broken records in 2021 or 2020. Some have told us they can’t absorb any more customers on summer weekends.

“That’s a pleasant problem.”

The Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry ran several events in 2021, highlighted by a food truck festival, the Industrial Softball Tournament and Jakes Rocks Trail Fest. They’re also now managing Warren County Winterfest, set for the weekend of Feb. 4.

All of those events share at least one thing in common — they’re outside.

“We focused our event schedule in 2021 primarily around outdoor activities and we were extremely pleased with the turnout that we saw at our events,” John Papalia, the Chamber’s director of operations and tourism, explained. “I think for many people, coming out to an event was a welcomed change after the lockdowns.

“We worked to do events and activities as safely as possible. An event such as the Jakes Rocks Trail Fest saw thousands of mountain bikers that were able to spread out through the trail system.”

Fee-based recreation sites on the ANF are privately managed by Allegheny Site Management and numbers provided by Hatfield show a revenue increase from $965,480 in 2020 to $991,648 in 2021.

Willow Bay, Red Bridge and Buckaloons were the sites that generated the most revenue, each topping $200,000.

Getting a handle on usage for ANF sites that don’t charge a fee, Hatfield explained, “is a little bit trickier.

“I tried to compare a couple sites in which we have good data over the last couple years. The biggest difference was in March-May 2020 when schools closed and a lot of people were looking to get out of the house,” he said. “That’s when we saw the biggest bump in non-developed rec use (e.g. trails).

“2021 numbers may be down a bit from 2020 — I hesitate to conclude much, though.”

Action in Washington is providing much-needed funding to attempt to capitalize on the growth of the last two years.

“The Forest is working hard to put together strong proposals to rebuild some of our circa 1960s recreation assets,” Hatfield said. “The Great American Outdoors Act and the Infrastructure Bill have provided us literally a once in a generation opportunity to rebuild our infrastructure and improve the Forest’s recreation assets.”

“In 2022, the ANF will benefit from additional Great American Outdoor Act funding,” ANF Operations Staff Officer Tim Vetter said. “We anticipate breaking ground this season or early 2023 on significant investments, which include the reconstruction of Longhouse Scenic Drive, Jakes Rocks Road, Kiasutha Campground and the Irwin Run Canoe Launch.

“These investments are in addition to the routine maintenance and minor improvements the Forest is able to make on an annual basis with our traditional allocations from Congress.”

Hatfield said planning has started for rehabilitation of the Dewdrop Recreation Area, as well, and that a new section of trail will link the Jakes Rocks system to Dewdrop.

The ANF is also “going to put a focus this year on our Boat-To Campgrounds (Morrison, Pine Grove, Handsome Lake, Hopewell and Pine Grove,” he explained. “The sites have fallen a bit into disrepair — this summer we want to spend some time dealing with deferred maintenance in the sites and improving the visitor experience.”

One site that’s still a bit up in the air is the Kinzua Point Information Center.

“It’s hard for me to say right now what the vision is for Kinzua Point Information Center,” Hatfield said. “Warren County and the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry have commissioned a study to look at various options for the site and of course we will involve our partners with the Warren County Visitors Bureau in any future decisions regarding the visitor center.

“For sure, there is a future for the site,” he stressed. “The views from there are absolutely amazing and a frequent stopping point for both residents and visitors passing through. The good news is that we might be able to get the restrooms re-opened next summer. This fall we were able to get the water system tested and everything looked good. In the spring, we’ll fire up the water system and as long as everything passes inspection, we’ll be able to open the restrooms.”

Flexibility and fresh thinking will still be required on the tourism front as we head into 2022.

“I think we will continue to see people adapt with how the pandemic has played out,” Papalia said. “I think one thing we and most everyone has learned over these last couple years (is) to be adaptable.

“For most of our community events, or other chamber initiatives we take a look and say what does ‘normal’ look like and plan for that. If we need to make changes because cases are up we can adapt to our plan B or C. I think being adaptable certainly falls into the ‘new normal,’and we try to be prepared for various situations.

Sherman also emphasized the role that county residents play in promotion and growth in the tourism sector.

“Stop. Complaining. About. Everything,” he said. “When visitors arrive here, they’re happy. When they are recreating or visiting here, they’re happy. They don’t complain about our parking prices or restaurant prices. Many times the visitors chuckle at the prices — especially the parking.

“Visitors want to be told what they don’t know — who serves good wings, where is a quiet place to hike, where is there river access for my kayak? They don’t want to hear complaints. They left complaints at home. Welcome them. Encourage them. They are listening to us. We can be positive or negative.”

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