Landscape architect and cycling enthusiast Erin Rushing returned to northwest Arkansas in 2000 after five years in Kansas City and wanted to know where the bicycle trails were.
His question was answered with a dumbfounded look. There were no trails of that kind.
Two decades later, thanks to the work of and support from myriad organizations, northwest Arkansas is teeming with cycling trails of all sizes for a variety of users. Enthusiasts are spreading the gospel statewide and the message is simple: People love cycling trails and cycling trails generate significant revenue.
A 2018 report by the Walton Family Foundation — an ardent cycling proponent — showed that cycling generated $137 million in economic benefits in Washington and Benton counties in 2017. The report detailed that $51 million was in economic activity — tourists and residents spending money — and $86 million was on health benefits from reduced mortality and lower health care costs.
The two major developments in cycling’s surge in popularity took place in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, the Razorback Regional Greenway opened. The 36-mile $38-million multiuse trail connects Bentonville in the north to Fayetteville in the south and Rogers and Springdale in the middle.
In 2016, with the support of the Walton Family Foundation, the International Mountain Bicycling Association held its major conference in Bentonville. More than 500 people and vendors attended, showcasing the growing mountain bike ecosystem emerging in the area.
“What we’ve seen over the last 10-13 years since trails have started taking off is it is more than just the bicycle; it is about our quality of life,” said Jeremy Pate, a senior program officer with the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region Program. “It helps with economic development throughout the community. Arkansas is known for its natural beauty, and we are trying to take advantage of that.”
Well before the Razorback Greenway was completed, soft-surface trails were beginning to pop up in the rugged outdoors of the region.
Soft-surface trails — think of the trails mountain bike riders take through the woods — had been present at state parks in Arkansas, but some were now being carved out in Benton County. Rushing is the executive director of NWA Trailblazers, a nonprofit that works with parties to develop soft-surface trails. Rushing helped plan 25 miles of the Razorback Greenway and more than 50 miles of soft-surface trails.
Immediately after the IMBA Conference, Rushing said, soft-surface trail-making spiked.
“That put us on the map,” Rushing said. “It blew up with 80 to 100 miles per year since. That is part of what you are seeing with the people coming here.”
The Walton Family Foundation said the two most populous counties in northwest Arkansas have 322 miles of soft-surface trails and 162 miles of shared-use paved trails, such as the Razorback Greenway. Rushing said not only does he not have to wonder where he can find a trail to ride, he is usually one of a crowd when he does ride.
In 2017, the last year for which the Walton Family Foundation has complete data, the number of soft-surface trail users totaled at least 90,000. More important, more than 50% of the riders were from out of state, bringing spending money that went to restaurants and retail shops.
“In 2007 was really some of the first natural-surface trails in Bentonville outside of state parks,” Pate said. “It has grown leaps and bounds from there over the last decade. Clearly it is a draw.”
Brannon Pack, the cycling coordinator for Fayetteville’s visitor bureau Experience Fayetteville, said 90,000 visitors is nearly one-fifth of the area’s population.
“The outdoor industry is huge; it’s ginormous,” Pack said.
‘The Culture of Cycling’
The foundation’s report showed that of the economic activity in 2017, $24 million was generated by locals and $27 million was from out-of-state visitors. Rushing said that when he stops at a trailhead, the parking lot is full of cars with license plates from northern states.
“I’ll run into people who say [they] moved here because of the access to the trails; I hear that a lot,” Rushing said. “They will move here with no jobs: ‘We will figure it out when we get here.’ There are a lot of people moving here because of the natural amenities we are providing.”
As the report showed, there is plenty of local interest in cycling. All four of the main cities, led by Bentonville with 44%, have high percentages of adults who said they ride a bike more than six times a year; the region’s average is 26%.
Per capita, northwest Arkansas has more cyclists than bicycle-famous San Francisco, according to the Walton Family Foundation.
“Northwest Arkansas and a lot of the cities that comprise northwest Arkansas are bicycle-friendly,” Pack said. “As a community, that is who we are. We quietly have been building the culture of cycling across the region and the trails have helped.”
Cycling tourism generates major revenue, too, through off-bike activities. Most cycling tourists bring their own equipment and apparel, but they don’t bring their own lodging, food and beer.
“When the ride is over and they have had this great day riding the bike, what are they looking for?” Pack said. “No. 1 is local food, No. 2 is local beer and No. 3 is local coffee. That is the businesses we are seeing being really successful. They want to do what the locals are doing and they want to eat what the locals are eating.”
The trails are proving popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rushing believes there are three times more people riding the trails than before the pandemic, when, of course, other activities were available as well.
The economic benefits have convinced many of the municipalities and business leaders. The foundation reported that homes near the Razorback Greenway sell for more money than those farther away, and Fayetteville has a city goal to have a trail within a half-mile of every resident within five years.
“Trails started more organically than [as an amenity],” Pate said. “We are definitely seeing that economic benefit. Those numbers start to add up to something we believe that is not insubstantial and cities up and down our region can utilize to their benefit to continue to invest in this type of infrastructure.
“As a philanthropic organization, we are often tasked to be catalytic. We recognize there is not a trail to everyone’s front door. The next iteration of that is making sure our streets are safe enough to bike to the trail instead of driving to the trailhead.”