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Special district could 'pedal' economic vitality

Are greater green investments in trails and parks needed for East County’s economic future?

Recent news coverage about Gresham’s fountain, Nadaka, and Troutdale’s latest water front improvements has me thinking about some interesting local ideas. With the economy recovering, we are seeing renewed investments in housing and businesses. How do we leverage this growth for more economic vitality in East County? One idea might be to look at our local parks infrastructure to attract high quality development. Maybe it’s time business and elected leaders get together to make a few good ideas reality.

ROD PARKOne idea is the 2013 bike tourism initiative the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce launched in 2013 that investigated increasing tourism, specifically bicycle tourism. Intrigued by the 2012 Travel Oregon report documenting $400 million in bicycle-related revenues, including 4,600 jobs in restaurants, hotels and bike shops the Chamber saw a viable economic opportunity in Oregon’s cycling industry.

In their summary report, one of five recommendations is “advancing infrastructure projects to enhance connectivity."

Anyone at the farmer’s market in Gresham or having breakfast in Troutdale knows bicyclists have discovered East County. New or improved bikeways and connectors can safely link neighborhoods to town centers, attracting more riders to East County and the Gorge. History shows visitors are the first investors.

I often see cyclists enjoying our country roads, however, vehicle traffic and narrow shoulders can make cycling dangerous and uncomfortable for drivers.

The area’s scenery is breath taking, but the local terrain is sometimes steep and winding. Investments in waysides, turn-outs and signage is crucial for safety and to make it enjoyable for those adventurous repeat “customers."

Part of that experience is on off road trails. Cycling enthusiasts now enjoy the 21-mile Springwater Corridor and the new connection from the 3.3 mile Gresham-Fairview trail through Blue Lake to Marine Drive, but it gets dicey connecting to the Gorge. Metro’s green spaces plans include enhancements to the 40 Mile loop. Links from Gresham’s Buttes to the Sandy River Gorge and the Beavercreek Canyon greenway will help connectivity, which translates to safety and attractiveness to tourists.

Trails and green ways boost property values and get citizens and their out of town guests in to our quaint downtowns, hotels, and locally owned restaurants.

What’s significant is that cycling is just the tip of the economic iceberg. The American Trails organization considers the outdoor industry “a growing and diverse economic super sector that is a vital cornerstone of successful communities that cannot be ignored. Viewed as a ‘must have,’ leaders across the country recognize the undeniable economic, social and health benefits of outdoor recreation.”

Oregon sees $12 billion in outdoor recreation spending, with $141,000 in outdoor industry jobs, and $4 billion in total industry wages and salaries, translating to $955 million in state and local tax revenue.

The Chamber noticed these undeniable economic benefits. Couldn’t the four cities of Fairview, Troutdale, Wood Village, Gresham and Multnomah County attract these dollars?

I believe so.

Working together we can grow recreation tourism to better position our region to take a slice of a billion dollar economic pie. In Oregon, travel spending, according to the 2014 Tourism Report, is at $9.6 billion.

How do we fund these investments? That’s part of the second idea to explore. Oregon’s special districts option might be a way to infuse resources in to trails, regional parks and community services.

Local cities, pooling their assets and working together, could build amenities that get people outdoors. Developing green infrastructure for parks, biking and trails means hotels, restaurants, vehicle rental and outdoor industries prosper.

When businesses generate income they grow jobs.

Traded sector businesses bring new dollars that support other businesses, contribute to the tax base for schools, public safety, parks and community assets. These fund the livability items developers, companies and employers are looking for themselves and to attract the employees they need.

The Chamber was on target with the Bicycle Tourism Initiative. The time is right to explore a special district. As a business owner I see the benefits of smart economic investments.

As a former elected leader I know it takes cooperation between business and elected leaders. If there is a discussion under way I’ll come to the table. If there isn’t, I’d like to help get one started.

Let’s find out if bicycle tourism leverages our assets and if a special district will provide the catalyst to speed investments. If they do, and we can impact the future of our local economy, they are ideas worth making a reality.

Rod Park is a former Metro councilor representing the East Metro district. He owns and operates Park's Nursery, 2100 S.E. 282nd Ave.

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