Ecocity Snapshots

Trail-Based Economic Development? Missouri Shows Us How

This monument at the Missouri State Fairgrounds commemorates cattle drives on the Historic Sedalia Trail between Texas and Sedalia.
Written by Rick Pruetz

Excerpt from Prosperity Comes in Cycles

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Bicycle trails are good for business. They attract restaurants, brewpubs and retail shops catering to those who walk or pedal for fun, exercise and health. When trails connect centers of employment, recreation, education and culture, they also generate residential development aimed at people who increasingly prefer active transportation to fighting traffic. And when trails are extended and linked with one another, they expand tourism revenue from a growing breed of vacationers who want to get out of their cars and experience places at a more leisurely and enjoyable speed.

As trails succeed, they increase business activity, employment, wages, property value, income and, importantly, tax revenues in a self-reinforcing upward spiral. Specifically, trail improvements boost trail use which grows trail-adjacent businesses and property investments which, in turn, expand tax revenues and create public support for further trail improvements. By riding the cross-state Katy Trail and other trails in Missouri, my wife and I got a first-hand look at this virtuous cycle.

Katy Trail State Park, stretching 240 miles from Clinton, Missouri to the Saint Louis suburbs, opened its first segment in 1990 and today is considered the nation’s longest continuous rail trail. In 2007, the Rails to Trails Conservancy added the Katy to its Rail Trail Hall of Fame. This honor recognized the Katy Trail’s scenic beauty, often threading a narrow path between limestone bluffs and the Missouri River, and its historical significance, following the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But it is also now an acknowledged redevelopment engine, attracting wineries, brew pubs, restaurants, lodging and other new businesses as it links 40 communities across the state, often giving struggling former rail towns a badly needed dose of economic vitality (RTC 2007).

Before the arrival of the Katy Trail, the economy of the City of Rocheport consisted of a few antique shops (RTC 2007). Today, this 240-person community offers seven bed-and-breakfast inns, four restaurants, one food store, one canoe/kayak outfitter, one bike shop and an up-scale winery.

About 50 miles west, the City of Sedalia is also transforming itself from an era in which 90 percent of the local economy was the responsibility of now-departed railroads and their related depots, repair shops, schools, and stockyards. Today, visitors can follow the Heritage Trail through Sedalia’s Downtown Historic District, with 120 landmarks in the National Register of Historic Places. For more than 35 years, this district has provided a fitting setting for the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, a 5-day celebration of ragtime music and the era when Joplin played nightly here at the Maple Leaf Club. Two miles west, the Katy Trail passes the Missouri State Fairgrounds, home to another 66 structures in the National Register of Historic Places and considered one of the five remaining historic state fairgrounds in the US. At the fairground entrance, a larger-than-life monument recreates the days when cowboys used the Historic Sedalia Trail to drive longhorn cattle from Texas to Sedalia for rail shipment east (Sedalia 2018).

The Missouri State Capitol is home to the 1936 room-sized mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton depicting all eras of Missouri’s history, including this rendering of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.

By taking a spur across the Missouri River, cyclists arrive in Jefferson City, where they can explore various landmarks including sculptures depicting key figures from the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Missouri State Capitol is stuffed with historical artifacts and features the 1936 room-sized mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton depicting all eras of Missouri’s history.

At least 21 wineries can be reached on the Katy Trail including five wineries in the City of Hermann alone. To avoid accusations of favoritism, Hermann features the Black Shire Distillery and the Tin Mill Brewery, housed in a 100-year old landmark grain mill. Hermann becomes particularly lively during its month-long Octoberfest celebration, attracting more than 7,000 thirsty visitors every year.

A 2012 economic impact study estimated that the Katy Trail annually attracted 400,000 visitors, creating a catalyst for tourism development in the form of wineries, restaurants, shops and lodging of all kinds. Visitor spending contributed $8.2 to local communities and generated a total impact of $18.5 million, supporting 367 jobs with a payroll of $5 million. Roughly two-thirds of trail users lived more than 30 miles from the trail and more than one quarter stayed overnight near the trail. Almost 90 percent of the respondents to the survey conducted for this study reported that the Katy Trail was the main reason for their visit (Synergy/PRI/JPA 2012).

Great scenery largely explains why 400,000 riders visit the Katy Trail annually, generating a total economic impact of $18.5 million.

Although the Katy Trail now ends in St. Charles County, connections to St. Louis are now evolving as part of a planned 600-mile “River Ring” network joining 45 individual greenways within bicycling distance of 90 percent of the region’s population. This ambitious project became more realistic in 2000, when the voters of the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, Missouri overwhelmingly approved a one-tenth of one cent sales tax that generates $10 million per year. Perhaps that dedicated source of funding freed the Green Rivers Greenway District to dream big, with a system planned to ultimately connect corridors along and between the Mississippi, Missouri and Merrimac rivers (Great Rivers Greenway 2019).

A total of 125 miles of the Great Rivers Greenway exist today, with several segments converging on Forest Park, the crown jewel of the St. Louis City Parks System. Forest Park was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, immortalized in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum is the only surviving building from the fair but the City has since added four other major institutions including the Saint Louis Science Center, the Missouri Historical Museum and the St. Louis Zoo.

When its gaps are closed, the 17-mile Centennial Trail will link Forest Park with the Katy Trail by way of Washington University and the Delmar Loop, home of the historic Loop Trolley and the City’s walk of fame which memorializes famous people associated with St. Louis including Ulysses S. Grant, TS Elliot and Maya Angelou.

The Chocteau Trail will ultimately connect Forest Park with Gateway Arch National Park. Although the exact route is being planned as of Summer 2019, this trail seems likely to access St Louis University and use an existing linear park that features City Garden, an open space combining splash pools, playgrounds and a child-friendly sculpture garden.

From Gateway Arch National Park, cyclists can peddle north on the Mississippi Greenway and use the car-free Chain-of-Rocks Bridge to cross the Mississippi River into Illinois.

From Gateway Arch National Park, cyclists can already travel north on the Mississippi Greenway to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is now a car-free part of the Route 66 Bikeway, allowing cyclists to access trails on the east side of the Mississippi River in Illinois (NPS 2019). Ultimately, this greenway will extend south from downtown St. Louis, creating a 32-mile riverfront trail linking the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers with the Gateway Arch, River City Casino, Jefferson Barracks Park, Cliff Cave Park, and the Merrimac Greenway.

As of Summer 2019, Missouri is deliberating acceptance of a 144-mile stretch of rail right of way once used by the Rock Island Line. If this proceeds, the Rock Island Trail will ultimately begin in Kansas City at the western edge of Missouri and extend east to join the Katy Trail near the eastern edge of the state. Presumably, the decision of whether or not to green light a complete Rock Island Trail will rest, at least in part, on expectations of economic benefit for the 26 small towns linked by this now-abandoned rail right of way. Given the Show-Me State’s legendary preference for hard evidence, the results of the 2012 study of the Katy Trail should provide a solid argument for going forward with completion of this ambitious 450-mile state-wide trail loop ( 2019).

 Sources 2019. Accessed on 8-17-19 at

Great Rivers Greenway. 2019. Accessed on August 1, 2019 from

Great Rivers Greenway. 2019.

Trust for Public Land. 2016. Connecting and Strengthening Communities: The Economic Benefits of Great Rivers Greenway. Accessed 1 August 2019 from


NPS (National Park Service) 2019. Chain of Rocks Bridge. Accessed 8-17-19 at

RTC (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy). 2007. Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park. Accessed on 8-17-19 at

Sedalia Convention & Visitors Bureau. 2018. Sedalia Missouri Visitors Guide. Accessed on 8-17-19 at

Synergy/PRI/JPA. 2012. Katy Trail Economic Impact Report: Visotors and MGM2 Economic Impact Analysis. Accessed on 8-17-19 at

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.