The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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Vision 2013

April 28, 2013

Region offers something for everyone

Tourism industry continues to grow

JOHNSTOWN — When it comes to tourism, the Cambria/Somerset county region continues to offer a wide range of activities that attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Tourism is a major economic driver and outdoor recreation and historic sites play key roles in growing the industry.

More people in Johnstown are beginning to realize that some of the best whitewater opportunities are in their own backyards.

Richland Township residents Chad Gontkovic and Jill Skowron, owners of Coal Tubin’, have been taking advantage of the river resource to grow their family-oriented, fun-filled water adventure headquartered at 303 Central Ave. in the Moxham section of Johnstown.

The couple converted a former probation office, which is a stone’s throw from the Stonycreek River, into a pickup point to transport people more than three miles upstream to begin a thrill ride.

Coal Tubin’ is expanding its business by adding hiking to its whitewater rafting and tubing on the Stonycreek River.

“We want to show people the more unique trails in Cambria and Somerset counties that they may not be familiar with,” Gontkovic said. “With growth comes a need for more warehouse space, but we have been unable to locate an acceptable site as yet.”

Whitewater rafting began the first week of April and will continue through May as long as river levels remain high.

“We will resume the runs when the river approaches its fall levels,” Gontkovic said.

But floating down the river in a tube needs only placid water.

Gontkovic said he is dedicated to providing superior service and quality equipment, and assembling the best staff of whitewater guides who are enthusiastic and personable.

He said the Stonycreek has one of the most continuous rapids sections on the entire East Coast.

Whitewater trips take place in the Stonycreek Canyon.

Coal Tubin’ rents river tubes for $10, and shuttles people to Greenhouse Park in a 14-passenger van.

From there, depending on water levels, riders can float from two to three hours down the Stonycreek River.

At the end of the float, people return to the office, turn in their tubes and walk to their cars. A season pass is available for $80.

If dry land is more appealing, there is no shortage of accessible trails in the region to keep people hiking and biking.

Turning the paths of former railroads into hiking and biking trails offers places to recreate in the Laurel Highlands.

Ed Patterson, director of Indiana County Parks and Trails, said the Ghost Town Trail gets about 80,000 visitors per year.

The trail, which has a limestone dust surface, has access points at Dilltown, Vintondale, Nanty Glo and Ebensburg.

Patterson said a popular beginning point is to go from Dilltown to Vintondale to visit the Eliza Furnace, a distance of six miles up and back.

“Nanty Glo sees the most traffic,” he said. “The entire trail has easy access and provides a multigenerational experience where grandparents to children have an opportunity for some great family fun.”

The Ghost Town Trail is 32 miles long traveling one way, with a southern access at Saylor Park.

There also is a four-mile spur at Vintondale, making the trail 36 miles.

“That Rexis spur is a hidden treasure,” Patterson said. “Those four miles are some of the most scenic and one of my favorite rides.”

Patterson believes the Ghost Town Trail is popular because of all its connections and is worth the trip for those who live as far away as Virginia or Maryland.

He is part of the initiative to tout the Trans Allegheny Trails, a system of 13 rail-trails in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.

“All of the trails are within the Route 22 corridor,” he said. “While they are not connected, each one is a little different and within easy reach along the corridor.”

Patterson said it makes for a great weekend opportunity to bike one or two trails on one day and stay overnight to tackle different trails the next day.

Most sections are typical rail-trail (less than 3 percent grade) and run through some of Pennsylvania’s most beautiful scenery.

The trails are: Ghost Town, 6 to 10, Jim Mayer Riverswalk, Path of the Flood, Roaring Run, Staple Bend Tunnel, Bells Gap, Blairsville Riverfront, Hoodlebug, Kiski River, Lower Trail, West Penn and Westmoreland Heritage.

Cambria County and its surrounding counties continue to cultivate tourism, an industry that local promoters say has bloomed into a major economic driver.

One study found that over 2,000 jobs were linked to tourism-related industries in Cambria County in 2011.

Lisa Rager, who heads up the Greater Johns­town/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the county earned $291 million from the industry in 2011.

“That includes lodging, food and beverage, retail, recreation and transportation revenues,” she said.

National park sites in the region remain popular attractions.

Keith Newlin, deputy superintendent Western Pennsylvania National Parks, said the region remains a popular attraction.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was the finishing piece of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal. The inclines and planes of the Allegheny Portage Railroad provided a unique engineering solution for transporting the canal boats across the mountains.

“Our visitor numbers have been holding steady,” he said. “We have gone about as far as we can go with site development after our latest openings of the Staple Bend Tunnel and the 6 to 10 Trail System.”

The 10-mile trail follows the route of the Allegheny Portage Railroad of the 19th century. The hiking sections of the trail are located on or near the original route. The bicycle section is located on the route of the New Portage Railroad.

Megan O’Malley, chief of interpretation for Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in St. Michael, said the number of visits in 2012 were on track with previous years.

“More than 107,000 people came to Allegheny Portage,” O’Malley said. “We contend that is a good number because it’s a larger number than for other parks our size.”

Visitor figures are higher at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, with 170,000 visitors strolling the grounds.

There was no larger news story in the latter 19th century, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The story of the Johnstown Flood has everything to interest the modern mind: A wealthy resort, an intense storm, an unfortunate failure of a dam, the destruction of a working class city and an inspiring relief effort.

“With those people in and around Johnstown, the flood is a living legacy,” O’Malley said. “The numbers of visitors have been higher in the past, but remains steady.”

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial preserves the ruins of the South Fork Dam, part of the old lakebed, and some of the buildings of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. In the visitor center, the National Park Service-produced film, nicknamed “Black Friday,” re-creates the flood.

The memorial gets most of its visitors from the flood’s anniversary in May and continues through June.

Nearby, in the community of St. Michael, remain some of the original buildings of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

Admission to both sites is $4 for anyone 16 or older.

The most current National Park Service (NPS) report shows that 643,000 visitors in 2010 spent $28 million in the five national parks in western Pennsylvania and in communities near the parks. That spending supported 421 jobs in the local area. These numbers are expected to grow significantly as annual visitation to the Flight 93 National Memorial grows to 400,000.

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