It’s said there’s a trail at the end of every street in Helena and a brewery at the end of every trail.
This is the lore if not the myth that Heidi O’Brien and Jennifer Davis note when talking about the city’s trail system and the ongoing work to survey those who use it, as well as asking others about the value they see in the trails.
There are plenty of trails here. Trails are one of the reasons people move to Helena and others come for a visit.
Some streets actually do have trailheads and yes, trails can lead to a brewery or two if not a distillery or a wine bar after a short stretch of street.
O’Brien is the executive director of the Tourism Business Improvement District and Helena Tourism Alliance. Davis is the community outreach director, and she and O’Brien are talking about how the Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research (ITRR) at the University of Montana in Missoula will crunch the numbers to produce data on the economic value of trails for mountain biking and hiking.
Bike shop, brewery, hotel and restaurant owners say they’ve seen an increase in business as a result of the trail system, Davis said and added “We hope that ITRR will help us nail down a number.”
The state Department of Commerce selected Helena’s proposal for a survey and is funding the ITRR portion of the work. The cost for the person with the clipboard and the ITRR badge who will actually be asking people questions into September is being paid for locally.
The city of Helena is contributing $4,000 toward the cost of the person who will do the surveys while Visit Helena Montana/Tourism Business Improvement District and the Prickly Pear Land Trust are each contributing $1,000.
City officials are looking forward to what trail users have to say through the surveys, said Amy Teegarden, the city’s parks and recreation director.
She sees the survey providing a better understanding of the overall value of trails and open space in Helena which, she said, are not taken for granted.
Those who use the trails and come to Helena for that purpose spend for food and lodging, as well as make other purchases, Teegarden said.
Trailhead parking lots and the number of people using the city’s open space and trails testify to their popularity, she continued and noted that people want garbage cans, and mitts for cleaning up after their pets in addition to trails for specialized uses.
Survey data will help in trail and open space management and care as well as in future financial support, Teegarden said.
Helena is being viewed as a case study, one that could lead to other communities asking for detailed data on tourism and what it means to local businesses, said Norma Nickerson, the ITRR director.
Results from analyzing the data could be ready by January, although other projects could delay that schedule.
While asking people at trailheads and on trails a few questions -- a random schedule for surveys will try to capture a fuller picture of usage -- there is also an ongoing effort to catch people at gas stations for a few quick questions.
Surveying those who stop at gas stations can catch a wide variety of folks, Nickerson said.
Those who take time for the survey while gassing up their vehicles may not use the trails but may have an opinion on how valuable they are to the community, she added.
“We know these are desirable amenities to people, but we need proof.”
Asking questions of trail users and those at gas stations is a way to collect information to assemble that proof.
Questions include asking people where they live before honing in on their primary reason for being in Helena and how long they’ll be staying here.
Respondents will be asked about their spending plans and whether previous spending was tied to trail use.
Survey data will do more than better articulate the economic value of trails. Nickerson sees it helping when applying for grants as funders are more likely to accept proposals that accompanied with this kind of documentation.
“I think this will give us the data, I hope, that Helena is a destination for visitors interested in mountain biking,” O’Brien said.
Their proposal that won them ITRR’s help to assess trail use noted that other agencies that own lands crisscrossed by trails will benefit as those land managers plan for growth, signage and the future.
Davis and O’Brien work in an office in a historic brick building in Reeder’s Alley, a touristy destination on the way out of town where the paved street becomes gravel and a free bus that they sponsor ferries hikers and mountain bikers to trailheads.
They have but to look out across their parking lot to the passing shuttle bus if they ever doubt the popularity of Helena’s trail system.
Another sign of the trails’ ability to attract tourists is equally evident.
Vehicles parked just down the street from their office have mountain bikes perched on car roofs, hanging from pickup truck tailgates or cradled on bicycle carriers.
License plates from other counties and states – some are even from Canada’s Alberta province – tell of how far people will drive for a day or more on Helena’s trails.
Helena might not be thought of as a mountain biking mecca, but among riders the word about its trail system has already been carried far afield.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association rated the more than 20 trailheads and 75 miles of trail that can be reached from Helena’s downtown (www.imba.com/ride-centers/current/helena) as a silver ride in 2015 -- one of 12 in the world -- and but one rating away from its top tier.
Centennial Park, the city’s premier park built atop a landfill, includes a bike park that’s used for fun and practice of the skills needed when out on the trails.
Bike Magazine’s June edition features Helena’s trails and wrote that “people pay a lot of money for this kind of riding, and Helena is giving it away.”
A photo feature in Freehub Magazine, a publication for bicyclists, is being discussed and could be shot this summer, O’Brien said.