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Action from the Alabama Cycling Classic men's pro race Saturday during the Sunny King Criterium in downtown Anniston. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

There might be untapped riches deep in the winding trails of Coldwater Mountain or along the 33 mile-long paved Chief Ladiga Trail for entrepreneurs willing to seize them.

For years Calhoun County officials have pushed to develop the area’s eco-tourism industry, from extending mountain biking trails to opening RV parks. Communities have promoted events to attract cyclists, like the Sunny King Criterium in Anniston and the Cheaha Challenge in Jacksonville. The long-term goal is to attract tourists who will spend money on lodging, restaurants and shopping, in turn creating jobs and fostering the opening of new businesses.

Those efforts have apparently generated some results.

According to a recent Alabama Tourism Department study, travelers spent $80 million in the county last year — an 11 percent jump over 2015 in traveler spending on hotels, restaurants, shopping and transportation.

Still, Anniston’s downtown, relatively close to many of the area’s more popular trails, remains littered with empty storefronts. The county’s vacation rental property market is practically nonexistent. Some industry experts say and other communities have shown that there could be greater spending if more businesses existed that catered to the tourism market and if it was better promoted.

What is needed

“Hotels are nice, but people would rather be in a home,” Richard Edwards, trail solutions manager for the International Mountain Biking Association, said of touring mountain bikers.

A quick search on popular online home vacation rental sites Airbnb and VRBO show sparse options in Anniston and the county.

Edwards said a vibrant nightlife is also important to visiting mountain bike enthusiasts and cyclists in general.

“That’s going to have a huge impact,” Edwards said of more nightlife options. “If you extended the riding into downtown Anniston, suddenly you'd see a huge wave of cyclists.”

The city of Anniston has for years planned to link the Coldwater trails into downtown and extend the Chief Ladiga to get more people to visit the shops there.

What is possible

Meanwhile, there are other communities across the country with eco-tourism similar to Calhoun, but with more business offerings.

Kalene Griffith has seen such business growth firsthand in Bentonville, Ark.

Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville, an organization that promotes tourism and supports business in the city, said Bentonville was once more like Anniston. Despite being headquarters for the national retailer Walmart, Bentonville’s downtown boasted just two restaurants around a decade ago.

Then around 2007 the community obtained money to build 5 miles of trails, Griffith said. By 2011, the city paved a trail into the downtown area for cyclists. Events were held to promote the cycling amenities and a nearby art museum.

“We created this urban experience and now there are 16 restaurants downtown and food trucks,” Griffith said.

Griffith said an estimated 500,000 people use the city’s trail system each year.

“Now downtown we have a lot of homes on Airbnb ... people have bought homes here and put them on VRBO for rent,” Griffith said.

Griffith noted that many of the hotels and restaurants in the area have bike racks for cyclists.

“When people are done riding, it's acceptable for them to go into restaurants in their riding gear,” she said. “Eight years ago, that probably wasn't as acceptable ... we have adopted biking as a whole because we want people to eat and stay.”

With a national park, extensive hiking and biking trails and the Colorado River, the city of Fruita, Colo., boasts many outdoor tourism attractions and businesses that take advantage of them.

Mike Bennett, Fruita city manager, said the city’s sales tax revenue jumps 25 percent every summer during tourism season. Bennett said the city has worked to foster tourism development, which has offset tax losses from the state’s oil and gas industry.

Bennett said declines in the industry resulted in a 91 percent decline in oil and gas tax money for the city between 2014 and 2016. The situation is reminiscent of Calhoun, which has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years because of cutbacks in the defense industry, resulting in less spending and sales tax revenue.

“But we’ve made up a good part of that gap with retail trade, lodging and restaurants,” Bennett said of the sales tax money. “We’ve taken a pretty proactive approach to recruiting business.”

Bennett said the city’s hotels do well, but he’s also seen more people offering vacation home rentals.

“We’ve seen more and more of those over the years,” Bennett said.

Anna King, co-owner of ERA King Real Estate in Anniston and overseer of King Property Management, said her company has tried to develop vacation rental homes in the county, but hasn't had much success.

“We’ve looked into it, but there’s not enough demand for it,” King said. “If there were quite a demand, I think people would be calling us.”

King said tourism does pick up considerably in the area during annual cycling events. She said more promotion of the area and the outdoor activities it has to offer might help boost demand.

“Any time you keep a treasure like that a secret, you’re not going to see demand,” King said.

Edwards said lack of proper promotion will always hamper a tourism spot. Edwards said cyclists like to know about everything they can do in the area, not just about riding trails. For instance, a visiting cyclist could ride Coldwater Mountain, then take his or her younger kids on a ride on the Chief Ladiga Trail, followed by a kayaking trip on Terrapin Creek in Piedmont.

“You need to put all the information for them together and where they need to bring their families and where to camp,” Edwards said.

Successful entrepreneurs

It just took a little local promotion to encourage Tyler Allie and his wife Rebecca to open Damascus Luxury Vacation Rentals in Damascus, Va., last year.

Allie said he got the idea for the vacation rental home business one day while talking to a chef at a local restaurant. The chef mentioned that the nearby Virginia Creeper Trail had so many visitors that the few vacation rental places in the area were struggling to meet demand.

“I thought it would be something worth trying; something to do for families,” Allie said.

The Allies bought their first rental property on the Creeper Trail, a paved, rails-to-trails project similar to the Chief Ladiga. The couple now has four rental homes that cater to visiting outdoor enthusiasts.

Besides the Creeper, other tourism attractions in Damascus include the Appalachian Trail and fishing, Allie said.

“We’re absolutely pleased,” Allie said of the business. “We have great customers coming this year that came last year.”

Bill Aceto, co-owner of High Country Resort Rentals in Boone, N.C., started his business in 2008 around the time many housing markets collapsed because of the Great Recession.

“We wanted to diversify and part of that was managing rentals for the banks,” Aceto said.

As the economy improved and tourism demand grew however, Aceto created a full-fledged vacation rental service as part of his property management firm.

“We were getting lots of inquiries about rentals ... there were lots of people coming in and just camping,” Aceto said.

Like Calhoun, Boone boasts riding trails, hiking and fishing. And like Calhoun with Jacksonville State University, which attracts thousands of alumni and their families every year, Boone has nearby Appalachian State University.

“A lot of our renters come up to football games and events associated with the university,” Aceto said.

Aceto noted that along with the people who work for his property management company, he also employs around 20 people to clean all the homes — people who wouldn't have those jobs were it not for his company taking advantage of the tourism market.

“And then there’s home repairers, auditors and appraisers,” Aceto said of people who benefit from rental property businesses that exist because of tourism. “It’s all connected.”

 

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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