In the old riverfront towns of Marietta and Columbia, you don’t have to wait long these days to spot a vehicle laden with a bike or kayak, quite possibly with a dog inside.
On Marietta’s riverfront row of eateries, not one but two restaurants have the word trail in their names. Bike racks are appearing outside entrances.
One restaurant welcomes dogs inside and has reshuffled its menu to offer more wholesome eat-and-run offerings for hikers and bicyclists. You can order a Muddy Banks jambalaya, quaff a Trail Rider IPA or buy something for Fido from the dog menu.
Columbia’s long-shuttered train station is now an ice cream and coffee parlor catering to the 250,000 or so people a year who head across the railroad tracks to the $3 million Columbia Crossing River Trails Center and River Park, the home of a recent Albatwitch Festival.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is seeing more boaters and anglers on the river and using their boat launches. The Susquehanna National Heritage Area is out the front door.
These are the welcome signs of the two river towns seizing on a new economy based on outdoor recreation, anchored by improved access to the Susquehanna River and the riverfront 14-mile Northwest Lancaster County River Trail.
Since 2010, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has invested $31 million into the effort in Lancaster and York counties. Its lead partner is the Lancaster Conservancy, which has protected about 6,200 acres on both sides of the river in the two counties and is eyeing another 5,000 acres.
Healthy communities, economies
“The time is now. The demand has never been higher. People are seeking out nature like never before. It’s an incredible economic driver,” Fritz Schroeder of the conservancy said recently at a Susquehanna Riverlands Recreation Economy Summit in Columbia.
The room was full of outfitters, hiking and bird-watching clubs, grassroots watershed groups and potential business investors.
“We are investing in a landscape here. We are investing in a place,” added Lori Yeich, recreation and conservation manager for DCNR.
The project is called the Susquehanna Riverlands Conservation Landscape, and its mission is to cultivate open space, trails and the river to spur visitors and private investment. The local landscape is one of eight such efforts around the state.
“We want economic development, vibrant communities, physical and mental health,” Yeich said in a keynote speech to the Columbia Economic Development Corporation this month.
“These are the benefits of outdoor recreation, so when you create that and have a business community that also supports it and you’re bringing jobs — that’s quality of life. Those are the things why people want to come to Columbia and Marietta and Wrightsville,” she said.
And people and businesses are coming.
Connecting in Columbia
The Northwest Lancaster County River Trail begins (or ends) in Columbia. A few miles to the south, Manor Township’s 5-mile section of the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail gets 80,000 users. That was before the former Safe Harbor railroad trestle opened for pedestrian use, a breathtaking river feature that is anticipated to become a national draw.
With another trestle-to-trail opening at Martic Forge, all 30 miles of the trail are connected.
The push is far from over.
Pennsylvania’s newest state park, the 1,044-acre Susquehanna Riverlands State Park, an $11 million state purchase, was recently created across from Marietta in York County.
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The upcoming $60 million renovation of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge will add bike and pedestrian lanes to extend the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail to Wrightsville with its new Riverfront Park and a connection with the 200-mile Mason-Dixon Trail.
Columbia has accumulated $2.75 million in grants toward a $5.5 million expansion of its highly successful River Park that will include a 700-person amphitheater, pavilion, pier into the Susquehanna and promotion of the borough’s key role in the Underground Railroad and the famous burning bridge episode that led to the climactic battle in Gettysburg.
“The trail is putting Columbia on the map as a destination,” said Bill Kloidt, executive director of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation. “We need to promote our recreation and history because we’re surrounded by the river and West Hempfield Township, so there is no room for growth. It’s setting Columbia up for more second opportunities and possibilities.”
Marietta and Columbia are the biggest beneficiaries so far of the Susquehanna Riverlands, launched in 2010. But with the pieces of the 30-mile Enola Low Grade Rail Trail finally linked together, Quarryville has similar ambitions to lure a captured audience downtown.
County commissioners recently approved $378,000 in federal recovery funds toward the $530,000 project to build an elevated ramp from the rail trail to usher users into town.
“I see it as being a real transformation for us. We’ve seen it happen in other places, and there’s no reason it can’t happen here,” Borough Manager Scott Peiffer said.
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He noted, with excitement, that Quarryville is the only town on the rail trail between Atglen and Columbia.
The upcoming ramp is welcome news to Mark Hopkins, 64, an avid retired Delaware bicycle rider who regularly comes with several friends to ride the trail. Either before or after their ride, they load their bikes and drive into Quarryville for a favorite coffee shop and restaurant.
“You can’t see (Quarryville) from the trail, and unless you research it, you would not know it is there,” he said.
New business influx
With a captive audience, Marietta and Columbia are bursting with new businesses jockeying to provide amenities for trail users.
Buying into the wave big time is Freddy States, since 2006 owner of McCleary’s Pub on Marietta’s Front Street. He and his business partner, Erik Marsh, are buying up buildings on Market Street near the trail and quickly renting them out for a variety of small businesses.
Recent openings include an art gallery, a jewelry store, a hands-on pottery shop and a tattoo parlor. In the works is a bookstore, knitting store, massage therapy business, an office for an interior designer and offices.
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Another entrepreneur opened an ice cream parlor. The trail also prompted a seller of recumbent bikes to move from suburban Lancaster to Marietta.
The reliable influx of visitors is what motivated Chuck Trissler to buy and open River Trail Brewing in 2021.
States said he has this dream of Marietta developing a quaint vibe like outdoorsy, walkable destination towns like New Hope and Jim Thorpe. In Marietta, a town with no street lights, he said he’d even like to see golf carts replace vehicles.
“The trail has really made Marietta a destination,” he said. “Our goal is to make it a walkable community where you can walk to get all our needs.”
“With the trail, we have more shops and more people,” new Mayor Rebecca Carroll-Baltozer said. “Having people go to the trail and exercising is good for community togetherness.”
Since the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail opened in 2016, a slew of new restaurants have opened on Front Street, which borders the trail. At five exit points as the trail passes through the borough, totem poles of signs point the way to eateries and attractions.
Columbia, with its proximity to two popular trails and paddling outfitters, similarly is riding a welcome wave of revitalization. It is three years into a strategy to invest in projects that use recreation and the river to get people downtown.
Within two blocks of the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center, which draws 100,000 visitors a year, two historic hotel buildings are being converted into apartments. A former potato chip factory is being renovated into the borough’s first modern hotel with a rooftop view of the river.
A popular restaurant that was about to close received new life with trail users after bike racks were erected outside and a throwback soda fountain added. First National Bank, one of the oldest banks in the nation, has been turned into a museum with tours.
The influx of new visitors is benefiting museums, a farmer’s market, brew pubs, antique shops and the Turkey Hill Experience, among others.
On a broader scale, the new offerings are making Columbia and Marietta attractive to new residents who, in the age of work from home, have more flexibility in choosing where to live.
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Access to walking and biking paths ranked third in a recent study on top considerations people give for choosing where to live.
Columbia Mayor Leo Lutz said he sees more empty nesters moving to Columbia, as well as young couples.
“They work hard, and they want to come home from work and hit the trail. The same thing for home sales going up. They’re buying them for the amenities that are available, and that’s the river trail,” he said.
The recent connection of all the pieces of the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail, the opening of the Safe Harbor pedestrian bridge and a planned linkup of that trail with the river trail has given Lutz visions of grandeur.
“When complete, we’re going to create an attraction to rival the Amish. We’re seeing it,” he said.
For DCNR, the successes in Columbia and Marietta is proof that state government needs to invest more in outdoor recreation around the state.
“For so long, we thought outdoor recreation just grew in the forest like trees do and it was something to get to when we had extra time and extra money at the end of the year,” said Nathan Reigner, the agency’s first director of outdoor recreation. He pointed out that the $14 billion spent by those who used the outdoors in Pennsylvania last year ranks it sixth in the country.
“There is growing recognition it needs investment and support from government like all our other industries and that is what we are trying to do for it.”
Ad Crable is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com.