FISHERSVILLE — A partnership between the Staunton, Augusta, Waynesboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, Bike Box of the Blue Ridge, Augusta County and the city of Staunton on Friday was the first step toward getting the area on the path of a walk-bike community.
The Staunton Augusta Waynesboro Walk-Bike Summit included a keynote speaker, break-out sessions and open discussion on how the area can become a walk- and bike-accessible community. The summit was held at Mary Baldwin University’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.
“This event is really a starting point, not an ending point,” said Randall Wolf, president of the board of Bike Box of the Blue Ridge.
Wolf said that Friday’s summit is a long overdue conversation in the area. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County started having a Walk-Bike summit eight years ago. However, he added that Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County are ready for the conversation.
The cities of Waynesboro and Staunton already worked on bicycle paths, and Augusta County is looking into options.
According to Wolf, local elected officials are starting to get the idea of a collective “human locomotion” of movement that is not about cars.
The larger conversation Friday is “a really great opportunity,” Wolf said in bringing community members together.
“For me, [Friday’s summit] means having a broad, strategic conversation about the importance of biking and walking in our community,” Wolf said.
Catherine Raines, a health educator in community outreach for Augusta Health, said Friday’s summit is hopefully the first of many sponsored by the Waynesboro Planning Department, Blue Ridge Bucha, Augusta Health, the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge, MBU’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, DuPont Community Credit Union, Augusta County Economic Development & Tourism and Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition.
“The overarching goal, I think, is just bringing different community partners together and individuals that have the same vision of improving the health of the economy and the growth of our economy by making it a more walk and bike friendly place to live,” said Raines.
Raines said she hopes the group is able to come up with outcomes and goals to work toward, and to remain focused on the goals, while also expanding on them each year.
Wendell Coleman, a member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, has lived in Fishersville for 40 years. He said he hears from his constituents that residents want to move to the area and stay here and enjoy its bedroom community atmosphere. Some residents live in Waynesboro or Augusta County because it is cheaper and work in Charlottesville.
“They prefer things stay the way they are,” Coleman said. And he has seen that perspective across different generations.
Coleman said that a walk-bike community could encourage employees to come and stay and fill the workforce gap in the area.
“This is probably one of the most serious problems we’ve got,” Coleman said of the need for workforce development. Residents are not staying and local businesses cannot find the talent they need, while school enrollment decreases and the population is aging.
Keynote speaker Pete Eshelman, director of outdoor branding for Roanoke Regional Partnership, spoke on “Play to Our Strengths: The Secrets to a Biking and Walking Community.”
Eshelman, a former kayak and rock-climbing guide who moved to Roanoke in 2009, is a member of the board for the Virginia Tourism Corporation, which is working to bridge the gap between economic development and tourism.
“I always find it important to clarify up front that what we’re doing is not tourism, although tourism is a bi-product of what we do,” said Eshelman of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. “So we’re intentionally leveraging our outdoor assets to create economic growth.”
Eshelman said the partnership was able to recognize that “talent is the currency of the future,” and communities able to attract that future talent will experience economic growth.
He said he hoped Friday’s summit would allow him the opportunity to share what he knows, but also for him to gather information to take home to Roanoke.
Creating a walk-bike community, Eshelman said, is all about “having that collective story” and getting as many residents as possible telling that collective story. He said the participants in Friday’s summit are becoming cheerleaders for their community to become a healthier place to live.
Businesses invest in a community for the ease of recruiting and retaining talent, Eshelman said, and a community that has outdoor options attracts businesses and employees.
With a Go Virginia grant, Eshelman said that Roanoke was able to conduct a survey of college students to gauge talent attraction. More than 1,000 students completed the survey, and one of the top five answers included accessibility to outdoor activities.
“So I think your decision to focus on bike and walk-ability is really spot on,” he said of Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta.
He advised participants to consider two questions as they move along in the process: What are you doing to make your community sticky? Does this activity make your community sticky?
“No matter what you want to be — it has to be real,” Eshelman said.
According to Eshelman, more than three in four Americans engage in outdoor activities.
“All of this getting outside translates to big dollars.”
He also offered that one in 20 Americans is employed in the outdoor industry, which is an $887 billion industry.
Eshelman said that to create a walk-bike community in Roanoke, the Roanoke Outside Foundation was created. The foundation received support from the public and private sector.
He encouraged Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County to consider their assets and to make them accessible. The process might involve thinking about any possible obstacles in the way or what might need to be changed to obtain the goal of a walk-bike community.
Then Roanoke created events to bring participants from all over, such as America’s Toughest Road Marathon, which was held two weeks ago.
“We wanted to make ours uniquely Roanoke,” Eshelman said of the marathon, which takes runners up and down three mountain ranges.
In the summit’s first break-out session, the 55 participants broke up into eight groups to discuss what makes Staunton, Augusta County and Waynesboro communities “sticky.”
Kara Dillard, a facilitator from the James Madison University Institute for Constructive Advocacy & Dialogue, said “sticky” communities make residents want to move to the community and stay. They welcome young residents and encourage them to stay with bicycling and other healthy lifestyle choices.
Research has proven a correlation between outdoor activity and happiness, Eshelman said.
“The happier you are, the more sticky your community becomes,” he said.
Wolf said what he hopes to gain from the summit is connections that lead to greater discussions throughout the year.
“We live in a beautiful place, and there’s no better way to enjoy it than walking and biking,” Wolf said.