The Waterway at New River State Park: An Assessment of User Demographics, Preferences, and Economics

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Place: Pulaski, Galax

Overview

This study found that the water trail along the New River Trail in western Virginia is used frequently by locals and non-locals, and is a relatively large source of revenue for local businesses. The trail and communities near the trail currently provide the amenities that trail users find most important, although there may be unmet demand for outdoor stores and restaurants, which could increase the trail’s economic impact.

Relevance

Findings from this study can help communities interested in developing water trails understand the potential to generate significant local spending, particularly if the trail is close to small towns that are able to provide lodging, dining, shuttle, equipment, and other visitor services. However, because the authors did not use a statistically random sample, the estimates are only approximate.

Location

The trail runs between Pulaski, Virginia (population 9,048 in 2013) and Galax, Virginia (population 6,977 in 2013) in the western part of the state.

Trail Type

The New River Trail is a water trail that follows a river, and includes a parallel bike and hiking trail and camping areas. The trail is 57 miles long; this study focused on a 39-mile section.

Purpose

This study, prepared for the Virginia Department of Conservation, is one in a three-part series quantifying trail use and user benefits related to recreational trails in Virginia (the other trails were the Virginia Creeper Trail and Washington & Old Dominion Trail). The authors had four main objectives in this study: 1) to describe trail users and their most recent trip; 2) to evaluate their attitudes about the trail, its management, and qualities of the local area; 3) to estimate economic impacts from non-local trail user spending; and 4) to estimate total economic benefits for all trail users.

Findings

  • Non-locals account for 43 percent of all visits per year.
  • The average local user, 57 percent of the sample, traveled 47 minutes one-way. The average non-local user traveled 3.5 hours one-way.
  • Local visitors took an average of 27 trips per year, while non-locals took 3 trips per year.
  • A visit to the New River was the primary purpose of the trip for 87 percent of all users.
  • Forty-three percent of users stated that their primary activity while on the river was fishing, followed by canoeing (14%), and kayaking, boating, or tubing (18%). Other popular primary activities were biking and camping.
  • There were no trail attributes that respondents listed as having high importance but with poor existing conditions, indicating that the trail was meeting user’s needs. Safety, public access, and avoiding conflict with other users were the three most important aspects of the trail. Ninety-four percent of respondents found safety to be excellent or good, 94 percent found public access to be excellent or good, and 86 percent found avoiding conflict with other users to be excellent or good.
  • Beyond the trail, respondents ranked water quality, water quantity, and outdoor attractions as the most important features of the local area. Although water quality and quantity are both rated excellent or good by 88 and 87 percent of respondents, respectively, the mean scores for conditions are lower than their mean scores for importance, suggesting that respondents would like to see some improvement in these characteristics.
  • The biggest gap between importance to users and current conditions was for outdoor equipment retailers (4th in importance, 8th in conditions) and eating places (7th in importance, 11th in conditions). This suggests that there is unmet demand for these types of businesses in the local community.
  • Non-local respondents spent an average of $76 per trip, which translates to $2 million of spending by water trail users and roughly 50 full-time jobs. For context, in 2013 total household labor earnings in Pulaski and Galax were $215 million and there were 6,291 employed people.
  • Economic benefits per user ranges from $12 per person to $25 per person. Multiplying the total number of annual visits (155,331) by the proportion of respondents for whom the trail was the primary purpose for their visit (87%) yields total net benefits ranging from $1.6 million to $3.4 million per year.
  • Changes in the price of the trip, including increasing user fees, would have a small effect on how many users visit the trail. For example, doubling the average amount spent per person, per trip, on user fees from $2 to $4 would increase the average trip cost by 2.6 percent, and decrease the number of annual trips by 1.6 percent, or roughly 2,485.

Methods

The authors obtained their data using self-administered surveys of users of the water trail (as opposed to the walking and cycling trail), with different versions for local and non-local users. Water trail visits make up 15-25 percent of all park visits. They did not conduct a statistically-valid sample because the layout of the trail, with many access points, made systematic sampling too expensive and labor-intensive. They obtained 185 completed surveys.

Users were asked detailed questions about their expenditures on the current trip, distinguishing between expenses incurred within 15 miles of the river and for the whole trip. They were also asked questions about the importance of various trail attributes and area amenities, and the current condition of those attributes and amenities.

Estimates of total use came from a 2003 study by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The authors estimated total economic impact using visitation and expenditure data as inputs into a regional economic model called the Money Generation Model, Version 2. They estimated net economic benefits using a statistical model that identified how changes in a visitor’s cost for travel affects the number of trips they take, known as a “travel cost model.” From this statistical model the authors quantify the total benefit to users, known as “consumer surplus,” when they use the trail. This is the benefit, measured in dollars, that a user experiences beyond what they have to spend directly during a trip to use the trail.

Citation

Bowker, J., J. Bergstrom, and J. Gill. 2004. The Waterway at New River State Park: An Assessment of User Demographics, Preferences, and Economics. Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.