Lessons learned in outdoor recreation planning from John Smith Trail

John Smith TrailThis past week, my Why, Richmond, Why?!? column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch answered a reader question about the John Smith Trail in Richmond. I was a little curious too and took to my bike on a 30-mile ride to explore it a little more closely.

We’ve got all kinds of trails in Richmond these days. The Virginia Capital Trail, Garden Trail, Liberty Trail and even an RVA Beer Trail. None of them has been around as long as the John Smith Trail.

While I conducted the interviews for that column, I couldn’t help but wish that my year’s in journalism and my newfound urban planning master’s degree could put me in a position to do the kind of work that John Davy, a recreation planner with the National Park Service, was doing. He is able to research a subject he is passionate about and his planning become a recreational tourist feature in the form of a trail.

“The John Smith Trail was actually the first national water trail,” said John Davy, an outdoor recreation planner with the National Park Service. He’s been involved with the development of the trail for nearly a decade, including some time with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

I took a tourism planning class during my graduate studies at VCU. As part of the class study, we traveled for a week through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also studied many of the gateway communities in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. We even met with David Edgell, a renowned tourism professor at East Carolina University. In all, we conducted more than a dozen interviews and visited twice as many sites (which made for a very long paper we submitted).

That level of planning — where you are contributing to the potential success of a tourism campaign — is extremely important work. For example, Virginia’s tourism revenues topped $22.4 billion in 2014, a 4.1 percent increase over 2013, according to the Virginia Tourism Corportation. In 2014, tourism in Virginia supported 216,949 jobs, an increase of nearly 700 jobs to the previously reported forecast estimate of 216,300 jobs. These jobs comprised 7.1 percent of the state’s total private employment, which makes the travel industry the fifth largest private employer in Virginia.

For the John Smith Trail article, I also enjoyed speaking with Danette Poole, director of planning and recreation resources with the DCR. The project began with DCR and the James River was the original pilot for the trail project.

“Virginia got a head start on developing the trail,” said Danette Poole with the DCR, which partnered with the VTC to develop the original website and brochures.

Poole mentioned that while a project like the John Smith Trail might be the biggest tourism draw in Virginia, it is just one of the many layers of tourism the commonwealth offers. Giving tourists new ways to venture out and explore.

I’ve got a few friends who work at the DCR and I have developed a bit of jealousy over their opportunities. Getting a job with DCR may be one of the best ways I can get to make a difference in the Virginia outdoors recreation planning. Considering my writing and media background combined with my planning experiences, it would be a good fit..

Of course, I am friends with Justin Doyle of the James River Association. He does a great job with his involvement with many local and state outdoor recreation planners. Doyle’s work with Henrico County helped establish the Grapevine Bridge access site on the Chickahominy River in the eastern part of the county a year ago. His group and the county are collaborating on another location along the James River at Turkey Creek Island and will keep supporting the effort to continue the John Smith Trail west along the James River watershed toward Powhatan and James River state parks.

The Grapevine Bridge access point is a great example of collaboration between nonprofits, local and state governing bodies and especially volunteers. Creating an access point like that would not happen today without the help of many volunteers. New access points again help create more layers — more ways to visit the outdoors in Virginia. Count Doyle’s job with the JRA as another one I envy.

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