Advocate says completed WOW Trail could be boost for downtown

LACONIA — A completed WOW Trail could be a major contributor to the economic well-being of downtown Laconia, according to Carl Knoch of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, who last night said that the key is finding a way ''to get users off the trail and separate them from their money.''
Knoch said that rail trails in his home state of Pennsylvania generate on the average $13.38 per day from each user, more than twice what they produced when the trails first opened, and said that a user survey conducted by the WOW Trail which showed an average spending of $8 a day shows that the local trail organization is on the right path.
He was the featured speaker at a meeting of the WOW Trail and the Laconia Main Street Initiative held at Pitman's Freight Room, right next to the rail line which will be a part of phase two of the WOW Trail, which has already completed phase one, a 1.3 mile stretch from a point just north of the Public Library to Lakeport Square.
Knoch said that among the many activities which rail trails in Pennsylvania use to attract visitors are festivals, marathons, trail rides and even a pumpkin walk. He said that communities with active rail trails find that they spur the growth of new businesses and attract recreational tourists.
''Do something other than just build it and it will help you get people to come into your community,'' said Knoch, who pointed out that one small community in Pennsylvania which is a hub of rail trail activity now has six bed and breakfast establishments when it had none 10 years ago.
WOW Trail President Diane Hanley said that a user survey of the WOW Trail got 437 responses, half of which were from people outside of Laconia. Of those from out-of-town about half were from Gilford and Meredith and surrounding towns and the other half from all parts of the country who were touring the area and wanted to see what was for them a new attraction.
She said that one of the most frustrating parts of developing the rail trail is the insistence by state DOT officials that the WOW Trail needs to be separated by a wire fence from the semi-active rail line that it runs beside.
Rail lines in Laconia are owned by the State of N.H. and leased to the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad.
''We spent $15,000 for fencing in areas where a train never goes by. Why do we need fencing when a train goes by only six times a year?'' Hanley asked.
Knoch said that to his knowledge there has never been a fatal accident involving a train and rail trail users and that is the fear of liability suits which keeps many state DOT's in a position where they make unreasonable safety demands.
WOW Trail director Alan Beetle said that after years of disputes over fencing between the trail and the railway, Brian Lombard of the Bureau of Rails at the DOT has verbally agreed that split rail fencing could be used to separate the second phase of the trail from abutting private properties.
Knoch observed that when the state rail trail system is complete it will be possible to bike all the way from Lebanon to Meredith and that will open up the possibility of more overnights stays, at nearly $100 per night, along the route,
Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunleavy said that the WOW Trail will connect with the Downtown River Walk which will help bring people using the trail into downtown which should be a boost for food and retail businesses in that area.