COEUR d’ALENE — Doug Eastwood knew it was time for an economic impact study on the North Idaho Centennial Trail when members of the former Kootenai County Commission hit a temporary impasse on paying for trail improvement two years ago.
The question was whether the county should contribute $3,000 per year for trail maintenance to trigger $2 million in federal funds for local trail improvements.
"When elected officials didn't see a benefit in the trail system, that was quite a surprise to us," said Eastwood, a member of the nonprofit North Idaho Centennial Trail Foundation. The foundation raises funds to improve the 23-mile trail from the state line through Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene to Higgens Point on Lake Coeur d’Alene. "That was the catalyst for the study."
Foundation Executive Director Tabitha Kraack unveiled findings of an economic impact study on the trail to roughly 175 attendees of the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce's Upbeat Breakfast at The Coeur d'Alene Resort on Tuesday.
"The numbers are pretty crazy considering how the trail helps our economy and health and brings in money from outside Kootenai County," Kraack said.
The study estimates that the trail draws 417,000 users annually, creates nearly $3 million in sales and $1.27 million in payroll that supports 54 jobs. About 62 percent of the trail users are bicyclists; 38 percent are walkers or joggers.
The funding figures consist of the foundation's three major annual fundraisers — the Coeur d'Alene Marathon, Ales for the Trail brewfest and Coeur d'Alene Fondo bicycle event — visitors to those events and non-resident trail visitors.
More than 3,000 participate in the three fundraisers each year and more than half of the participants live outside Kootenai County.
The analysis assumes that 10 percent of the trail users (about 41,700) are non-residents. They spend $27 per person on meals and drinks for each visit, which adds up to $1.1 million in spending.
"The Centennial Trail plays an important role in enhancing the quality of life in the local community and complementing the regional tourism industry, an important growth factor for the economy," the report states.
The trail also creates $194,038 in state and local taxes, the study states.
The $3,000, yearlong study funded by the foundation was performed by Steven Peterson, a research economist who is also a clinical associate economics professor at the University of Idaho. It is the first time an economic impact study has been performed about the trail.
The results include the multiplier effects that measure ripple effects of the trail's expenditures as they circulate throughout the economy. For every dollar of new spending, more than $1 of economic activity is created. The multiplier effect includes direct expenditures of the trail's operations, indirect benefits and employee and consumer spending.
To estimate the number of trail users, the study used figures from counters at nine locations on the trail and incorporated previous trail counts.
Eastwood said the number of users cited by the study was a conservative number; a count in 2015 came in at 456,243.
The study includes two surveys. One was an on-site trail survey done in September 2018 during two weekends that had 101 respondents. The other was an online survey issued to regional trail stakeholders that drew 109 respondents.
Online survey results include:
• 37 percent of the users are on the trail multiple times each week;
• 59 percent considered the trail in their decision to move to or stay in Kootenai County at least a moderate amount; and
• 43 percent said they would drive 30 miles to go bicycling or walking if the trail did not exist.
On-site findings include:
• 58 percent use the trail multiple times each week;
• 56 percent said they considered the trail a lot in their decision to move or stay here; and
• 60 percent of the non-residents said they plan to spend more than $40 each day while in Coeur d'Alene.
"We hope that, with this study, folks in our community will be even more apt to contribute to our fundraisers, knowing that there are nice returns on the trail being here," Eastwood said. "If we wanted to get into a more detailed study that really gets down to the nitty gritty on the economic impact, it would have cost $40,000 to $50,000."
Peterson said the study paints only part of the beneficial picture of the trail. Other benefits include providing an alternative mode of transportation, reducing traffic congestion, promoting recreation and event opportunities, the aesthetic value, recruiting and retaining businesses, boosting property values and enhancing the overall quality of life.
"When fundraising activities themselves are making a huge positive impact on your community, you know you are doing something right," Peterson said.
Tara Wilson, who was walking along the trail east of Coeur d'Alene on Tuesday, said she's been using the stretch for the past five years. She’s thankful it’s part of the community.
"The views of the lake while exercising are to die for," she said. "It makes getting out here much easier."
Wilson said she knew the trail is popular, but the estimated number of users revealed by the study is a surprise.
"It shows how valuable the trail is to this area," she said. "I think sometimes local residents take it for granted after awhile."
On the Washington side, the Centennial Trail runs from the state line into Spokane and north to Nine Mile Falls.
Kraack said, in addition to expanding the Prairie and U.S. 95 trails in Kootenai County, a future project the foundation is working on is lighting for the painted bridge along the Centennial Trail at the state line.
"Our beautiful trail will be the first thing you see at night when you cross the line into Idaho," she said.