There was a time about 20 years ago when talk of economic development was limited to permit fees and energy costs, cost-per-square-foot and access to schools for talent. Now, we know better. We know that cities and regions that offer great civic amenities — public spaces that connect and inspire us — come out on top. Consider the economic strength of Denver, Seattle or Portland. These cities have pulled off the balancing act of being business friendly and offering energetic downtowns, museums, art galleries, stadiums and remarkable outdoor experiences.
In the Sacramento region, our globally defining economic asset isn’t some downtown skyscraper or flagship business. Our biggest untapped economic asset is natural — the mountains, lakes and surging rivers, expansive oak woodlands and deep forests, wide open agricultural land and open spaces, and the incredible parks and trails we use to access them. Increasingly, people and businesses are coming from all around the world to experience them, and stay.
According to data captured by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, our six-county region receives 15.3 million visitors per year. In Sacramento County alone, travel spending in 2015 grew to $3.6 billion, a 5 percent annual increase. These hefty numbers aren’t surprising given the economic renaissance now underway, from the Golden 1 Center and the $3.6 billion in new downtown and riverfront investment to our lively local food scene that solidly supports our claim as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. Yet travelers are seeking more, including access to the mountains, lakes and rivers that make Northern California a global recreation destination.
With this in mind, Valley Vision decided to introduce a bold question: Can we work together to create one connected trail system from Lake Tahoe through Sacramento down to the Bay Area? Imagine a trail system where everyone can enjoy the outdoors for health, fitness and connection to something larger. Imagine contests and events along the trail that bring athletes and adventurers in from around the world, drawing us even greater global acclaim. Imagine attracting and growing firms focused on health, recreation, the outdoors and tourism, improving business dynamism and creating new local jobs — a recommendation issued in the recent Brookings Institute’s “stress test” on our region’s economy. Such a trail system would be unmatched in the world in length and beauty. It would be a truly “Epic Trail.”
One has only to look at what’s happening in Folsom and Roseville to see what could happen if we had an integrated trail system that makes parks and trails an even bigger part of our economic growth strategy.
In Folsom, with its 45-mile long network of paved trails, including the iconic Johnny Cash Trail, more businesses are locating along the different trailways so that employees can stay active, enjoy the outdoors and have an alternative route to work. These employers know that, in addition to offering more transportation choices, their workers can incorporate exercise into their daily routines, improving the company’s bottom line by lowering health costs and improving employee productivity. In Roseville, the 6-mile Dry Creek Parkway trails cut through residential and commercial areas, connecting people to picnic facilities, soccer fields and fishing access. City officials in Folsom and Roseville have prioritized outdoor space and recreation, and partly as a result, these cities boast a high quality of life — along with low unemployment, vibrant business activity, high property values and quality public schools.
Valley Vision’s 2017 report on attitudes about civic amenities found that 91 percent of Sacramento area residents consider civic and cultural amenities like parks, museums and sports facilities important to their quality of life. Young or old, rich or poor, city-dweller or rural resident — the response was the same: Civic amenities are vital to a good life. On the business side of the equation, 87 percent of respondents consider public amenities important for attracting visitors to Sacramento and 80 percent consider amenities important for attracting businesses to the region.
Valley Vision then asked which type of amenity people felt was most important to their quality of life. The No. 1 answer, by far, was parks and trails. Nothing else — not art galleries, museums, sports and entertainment facilities — came close. They are accessible by everyone, can be used daily by all ages, and advance our mental as well as physical wellbeing.
The Epic Trail would connect the 35-miles of trails in Roseville to the extensive network of trails in Folsom, Rancho Cordova, Sacramento, Placerville, Lake Tahoe, Davis and other cities, with the American River Parkway — our crown jewel with 32 miles of multi-use trails — serving as the main trunk. It would connect to the Bay Area through a variety of alignments, including, but not limited to, down the Great Delta Trail to the 500-mile Bay Trail through nine counties around the Bay. Linking these parts of the system together would make Epic Trail one of the longest, contiguous trail systems in the U.S. at well over 500 miles in length.
Today, Epic Trail advocates are spending the bulk of our time focused on working with rail and bike advocates on the 22-mile segment that winds its way along streams and through oak woodlands between Folsom and Placerville along an old rail line. A joint powers agency that controls the line’s use is set to decide this November whether to conduct an alternative study that looks at a “rails and trails” alignment that could be the linchpin to the Epic Trail’s fate. We know there is some resistance from those who don’t want to disrupt the status quo in their communities, and we’ve been working to build those bridges. But leaders need to hear from their constituents that building up our regional trail system will be a win for everyone.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of more than 400 companies, argues, “It is only by being bold that you get anywhere.” A billion dollar remodel of the Sacramento International Airport was bold. Keeping the Kings and building the half-billion-dollar Golden 1 Center that is reshaping downtown was bold. Epic Trail is another bold move that we all can work on together that leverages our greatest economic asset: nature.