Florida Starts Rolling on the Coast to Coast Connector Trail

Florida is a unique place. If you’ve ever traveled through it, and I have, you’ll notice the terrain changes from exotic beaches to wide open farm lands to dense woods, and to swamps only to come out the other end in reverse.

Florida has its cities, and shopping malls and tourist destinations. (Ever heard of Disney, Universal or Sea World?) But what makes Florida beautiful is its sheer variety of landscape begging to be explored. According to Visit Florida, the tourism marketing corporation for the state, in 2012 approximately 75 percent of Florida’s 87 million tourists were visiting for outdoor adventures and activities.

That’s a market worth nurturing. Of course, most of that allure comes by virtue of the theme parks; yet there is another component: nature. Visit Florida, in fact, recently introduced a marketing campaign dedicated to those outdoor adventures, Share A Bit of Sunshine.

One such “attraction” has gained considerable speed of late across the state and especially in Central Florida: nature trails like the Coast to Coast Connector.

The Coast to Coast Connector trail is a 250-mile, multiple-use trail that, if completed, would stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean—using a large amount of existing trails. On the West Coast, the trail begins at St. Petersburg and runs up the West Coast halfway into Hernando County. From there, the trail cuts east in Sumter, Lake, Orange, and Seminole counties; finally, the trail ends on the East Coast in Brevard. There are 14 trails (both local and regional) that already exist along this corridor. Coast to Coast seeks to fill in the seven gaps between those existing trails. Also, it’s the beginning of a Livable Florida— “where people have more transportation choices for recreation, exercise and traveling to work, school or social engagements.”

Positioned as economic growth and eco-tourism, the Coast to Coast Connector is the first project of its kind in the nation.

That’s quite the eco-tourist attraction—only with a few parts missing. For now.

To complete the vision, funding is needed. The amount: $50 million. The wheels are in motion.

This past May, the effort gained momentum when Gov. Rick Scott signed a $77.1 billion budget for 2014-15 that included a $15.5 million jumpstart toward a five-year plan to finish the trail. In addition, along with the $15.5 million, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, moved language into transportation bill SB218 that permanently authorizes the Florida Department of Transportation to use state trust funds to build bicycle and pedestrian trails in cooperation with the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.

In turn, the economic benefits are as clear as a typical morning on the West Orange Trail (22 miles long owned by Orange County Parks and Recreation).

In 2008, the League of American Bicyclists released a report on the economic benefits of bicycling in the U.S. Along with contributing $133 billion in nationwide annual revenue, biking supports more than 1.1 million jobs. The activity generates $17.7 billion in annual federal and state tax revenue and produces $53.1 billion in retail sales and services. Add in $6.2 billion in gear sales and services and $46.9 billion in trip-related expenditures and you had a large enough sum of money to inspire Florida to enter the fray.

Across Florida, property values are expected to rise and visitor traffic increase. The 2008 report went on to describe the benefits the Pinellas Trail made on the west Florida town of Dunedin: “Business occupancy in downtown Dunedin was 30 percent; today with the Pinellas Trail in place occupancy is at 95 percent.” There are other examples of such growth throughout Florida, with places as disparate as Winter Garden and downtown Miami receiving similar economic boosts when nearby trails are established.

The Coast to Coast Connector looks to steer all of those benefits to Florida’s Super Region by building connections to existing trails and making it an attraction. The journey has this ultimate sight: position Florida as even more of a top-tier tourist destination.

The pedaling possibilities are endless.