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New business developments opening around converted railroad tracks

39-mile Longleaf Trace Rails to Trails attracts tourists

HATTIESBURG — For many years there have been more people from South Louisiana who canoe down the scenic Okatoma Creek than local folks. Ditto with canoeing the Black Creek near Wiggins. And now those same Louisiana folks have discovered a new reason to visit the Pine Belt area: the Longleaf Trace Rails to Trails.

The Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) has a billboard up in New Orleans promoting the new outdoor recreation opportunity, a 39-mile trail for bikers, hikers, roller bladders and horseback riders that some say is one of the best Rails to Trails in the country. Rails to Trails is a nationwide program where old railroad tracks are converted into trails for outdoor recreation uses.

“The quality of it really speaks well for the Hattiesburg area,” said Rick Taylor, director of the Hattiesburg CVB. “There is quite a variety of terrain along the trail.

It really is a first-rate development that is of the quality of a National Park. A lot of thought and planning has gone into it.”

Local hotels report that families are coming in with their bikes to ride the Longleaf Trace, providing a positive local economic benefit. Taylor thinks that high gas prices make the Trace even more attractive.

“With high gas prices there is more interest in shorter distance recreational opportunities,” Taylor said. “A study done for the state last year showed the bulk of tourists coming to our area travel a maximum of 250 miles one way. Most working folks don’t get those two-week vacations anymore. So they are looking more at extended weekends or just weekend travel.”

The Trace is particularly attractive to residents of South Louisiana, who enjoy escaping the congestion and crime to travel on a trail that is only about an hour and a half drive away from New Orleans. There is also a Rails to Trail in St. Tammany that has been very successful. But the Longleaf Trace is “the new kid on the block.” So bikers want to check it out.

The trail covers three counties, Jefferson Davis, Lamar and Forrest, and five cities, Hattiesburg, Sumrall, Bassfield, Carson and Prentiss. All the city and county entities have cooperated to make financial contributions to develop and maintain the trail. There have also been corporate sponsorships from groups such as Warren Paving and Georgia-Pacific.

Taylor said the trail is particularly popular with the younger, Generation X crowd that is into active sports like mountain biking and bicycling. The Trace is considered what might be called “mild adventure.”

Herlon Pierce, trail manager for the Longleaf Trace, said they are averaging about 500 visitors on busy days, and perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 visitors on a busy weekend.

“We have a lot of bikers coming from long distances,” Pierce said. “On a typical day we will see people here from several states on the trail. They have to find fuel, food and overnight accommodations. The economic impact is definitely positive. I’m often referring people to motels and campgrounds. Visitors just love the trail, and it is one beautiful sight. Those people who travel and visit these kind of trails often are putting it among the very elite trails in the country.”

The Longleaf Trace is also generating new business activity. Four K Stables in Bassfield, owned by Johnny Kerley, provides a full-care equestrian facility including rentals for trail riding. There is a 23-mile horseback riding trail that runs parallel to the 10-foot-wide paved trail between the communities of Carson and Epley.

Another development is the Sumrall Depot, which offers a bicycle repair shop, a game room and golf cart rentals to allow people who are handicapped or elderly to enjoy the trail. Only those older than 55 or handicapped are allowed to ride golf carts on the trail. All other motorized vehicles are forbidden.

Future plans for the trail include extending it to the University of Southern Mississippi and putting in an observation deck at Beaverdam Lake, a 10-acre lake along the trail that was created by a beaver dam.

For more information about the Longleaf Trace, send an e-mail to info@hattiesburg.org , visit the Web site: www.longleaftrace.org, or call Herlon Pierce at (601) 550-3518.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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