by Terry Johnson
(This article was published in the December 9 2016 issue of New Hampshire Business.)
Melanie Davis and Carmel Shea are both active users of the Derry Rail Trail. A few years ago, after a bike ride, they noticed there were no real options to relax, grab some healthy food, or just hang out with friends over a coffee near the trail. They had young children, were at a crossroads in their respective careers, so they decided to open The Grind Rail Trail Café on the Derry Rail Trail in April 2014 to fill that void. It turns out that betting on active living and good, nutritious food was a healthy business decision and they began turning a profit within months of opening.
According to Davis, “We opened right on the rail trail hoping that there were other people like us who would appreciate a fun place to be with family and friends, enjoy some healthy food, grab a cup of coffee and feel comfortable wearing their biking or cross-country ski gear. We were welcomed immediately. The response was overwhelming.”
The Grind Rail Trail Café, serves health-conscious food that is local and organic whenever available, as well as locally roasted organic coffee. It has not only gained huge popularity in the greater Derry area, it has been recognized statewide, receiving awards for best coffee shop from the Hippo, New Hampshire Magazine and WMUR.
Davis credits much of the café’s success to its location on the rail trail and noted that the sign and bike rack right off the trail really helped attract customers.
The Derry Rail Trail is a popular destination for locals and tourists looking for a safe place without vehicles to bicycle, walk, ski and snowshoe. It has eight miles of paved path running from Windham right into Derry’s downtown. It’s the longest paved section of the Granite State Rail Trail and plans to expand it to the Londonderry trail are in the works.
According to Will Stewart, president of the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, the rail trail continues to provide economic stimulus, not just to The Grind, but to much of downtown Derry and surrounding communities.
He added that Derry is looking to add Complete Streets components, such as bicycle lanes and better crosswalks to make Broadway, the busy Route 102 connector that runs through the downtown, more walkable and bikeable.
“We want to help improve the built environment so that downtown businesses can benefit from pedestrians and bicyclists and feel confident about opening in Derry,” Stewart said.
Derry is not alone in its efforts to support economic growth by capitalizing on people’s desire to walk, bicycle and be more active.
In a presentation at the Oct. 12 HEAL NH Conference, Dr. Charlie French, program team leader of community and economic development at UNH Cooperative Extension, discussed the positive impact Franklin is experiencing as part of the planned revitalization of a city-owned tract of land along the Winnipesaukee River and unused mills to transform the area into a central attraction and economic hub.
According to French, four new businesses have opened, including Outdoor New England, a kayak and outdoor equipment store. One, which offers yoga classes, had a soft opening in mid-November, and plans a grand opening on Jan. 1. Other downtown businesses that have opened over the past year include Franklin Clothing Company, the Central Sweets candy store and Franklin Studio, a volunteer-run coffee shop.
The good news is that there is strong evidence that these community efforts will pay off. According to Smart Growth America, a Brookings Institution study, real estate values increase as neighborhoods become more walkable.
Christopher Leinberger, co-author of the report, explained his findings in a New York Times article: “There is a five-step ‘ladder’ of walkability, from least to most walkable. On average, each step up the walkability ladder adds $9 per square-foot to annual office rents, $7 per square-foot to retail rents, more than $300 per month to apartment rents and nearly $82 per square-foot to home values … As a neighborhood moves up each step of the five-step walkability ladder, the average household income of those who live there increases some $10,000. People who live in more walkable places tend to earn more, but they also tend to pay a higher percentage of their income for housing.”
Local studies echo the Brookings report.
Another presenter at the HEAL NH conference, Semra Aytur, associate professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of New Hampshire, outlined the results of a New Hampshire study that found several health and economic benefits associated with active recreation spaces and walkable, bikeable communities. In addition to increased property values, she cited benefits that included stronger local economy, higher leisure-time activity, healthier workforce and “increased perceptions of happiness.”
With no income or sales tax, New Hampshire relies heavily on property taxes. The direct association found between increased property values for communities that offer access to walking, bicycling, parks and other active recreation spaces – not to mention the health benefits – has important implications for our state.
Dozens of New Hampshire communities have adopted this forward-thinking approach to infrastructure, and, with the passage of Senate Bill 364 to study the feasibility of adopting Complete Streets at the state level, more Granite State residents may soon be walking or biking to a downtown startup coffee shop or doing yoga in a renovated mill.
Terry Johnson is director of HEAL NH at the Foundation for Healthy Communities.