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When is a stretch of pavement worth more than just the blacktop and labor used to install it?
For those who use the Albany County Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail, it has become another means by which to live a healthier lifestyle. More than 200,000 people walk, job or bicycle down all or a portion of its nine-mile length each year. Community leaders and the business owners whose storefronts neighbor the trail see well aware of that kind of traffic, and they want to tap into it more.
It’s almost ironic. The rail trail corridor is once again seen as a means to attract residents and consumers to the towns in which it runs through. More than 100 years ago, this same potential was seen by similar parties and railroad tycoons breaking ground to access port cities and centers of commerce across the country. The old Delaware and Hudson line connected farming towns with Albany. It helped our towns grow, and helped some of our earliest suburbanites (before it was such a thing) commute back and forth to jobs in the city. Most people remember it, though, as the freight line that it was. Some of us can still feel the earth shake as the train traveled through.
Longtime residents of Bethlehem recall using the “waterline” as a means to bike through town. Technically, those who did so were trespassing, but the commonality of this pathway to local residents could be witnessed by the footpaths etched through the green grass around the chain linked gates at each threshold. Initial talk of the rail trail bring back memories of that pathway used by kids looking for a safe way to hit Fay’s Drugs, McBoogles or KayBee Toy Store. But, the amount by which the surrounding community would benefit by this trail was sometimes in doubt.
In the few years since the rail trail has been paved, it has evolved from a topic of curiosity to a tangible stream of income.
Just as kids once used the waterline to go from Point A to Point B by means that didn’t compete against motorists, people see the rail trail runs from Voorheesville to Albany, from behind Delaware Plaza to Four Corners and Slingerlands. Let’s not forget that the path is properly paved for smooth rides, and you’re no longer breaking the law.
In May, we reported on the burgeoning Bliss Juice Bar opening along the rail trail. Business owners like Jackie Slattery and Katie Dievendorf could already see the potential for customers walking into a store front with its back facing Delaware Avenue — a foreign concept that only now starts to make sense. A health-conscious demographic is more likely to be coming from the rail trail by means of foot or bicycle than by an automobile.
County Executive Dan McCoy said there has to be an effort made to coax people to lead healthier lifestyles, and that point can’t be argued enough as the average American continues to grow more obese as the years progress. Residents of our town, however, can see more than their fair share of dedicated bicyclists and joggers on our roadways. We have more than 1,000 people at a time participating at our various foot races each season. Bethlehem knows cross training better than Bo Jackson, which is perhaps why we’re seeing so many people on the rail trail at any given time.
Of course, this potential was first witnessed by local developers. In the past four years, we’ve seen developers propose or complete plans for residential properties at close proximity to the rail trail. Townhouses constructed off of Delaware Avenue and a few developments proposed off Kenwood Avenue are just yards away from the old railroad line. No longer are homeowners annoyed by the sounds and tremors as trains click-clack through town. Any green space that is available along this path is valuable, sought after property for new construction.
Both Albany County and Town of Bethlehem officials should be commended for embracing the potential this trail would have on our local economy. This trail not only helps local businesses thrive, but gives our residents a cherished amenity that makes our hometown a wonderful place to live. But, those same officials need to look at how it will impact future development, and adversely affect our neighborhoods, too. The perspective on properties once thought undesirable because of its close proximity to freight train traffic has been flipped on its end. There are historical homes in Slingerlands to consider, and greenspace throughout town worth preserving. That, we believe, would be the best way to help keep this asset as a way to allow townspeople to enjoy the great environment we live in.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.