When Mark Platts was growing up, the Susquehanna River was seen as a dirty, dangerous place.
Just a generation before, it had been a mainstream recreational resource.
But by the 1960s, the tides of perception turned, in part because of problems created by pollution from industries that lined the Susquehanna's shores and flanked its tributaries, Platts said.
However, cleanup efforts launched with the start of the national environmental movement and federal legislation in the 1970s have aided in swinging the pendulum back, said Platts, president of York County-based Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area.
The efforts have helped new generations begin to connect with one of the midstate's most dominant features. The public is embracing paddling, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and a host of other outdoor recreational opportunities on the river and near its shores, he said.
"I think that's the thing that has been changing over the past 20 years — particularly the past 10," he said.
He cites the "past 10" because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks resulted in different vacation interests. People are looking to spend their off time closer to home and, when they do, they look to the river, Platts said.
Amid these factors — and others that stakeholders say make the Susquehanna suited for success — it's up to business to capitalize.
In other parts of the world, paddle sports and using watercraft to explore history and ecology are strong tourist draws, and nothing precludes the midstate from joining those ranks, one official said.
Other advantages include the lack of commercial ships that ply most other rivers of the Susquehanna's length, banks that have retained more forests more than its counterparts; and being on the doorstep of so much of America's population, stakeholders said.
Getting small businesses involved
The private sector will be an important part of deciding whether the corridor evolves during this time of the stars aligning to become a lucrative visitor destination, said Jonathan Pinkerton, the heritage area's vice president.
If people come from outside the area to take a scenic drive along the river, they are going to need gas stations or rest stops along the way, he said.
Though the area needs to be protected from overdevelopment, amenities provided by small retailers are an important part of the equation, Pinkerton said.
One impediment to more businesses moving in faces all entrepreneurs: the need to take initial risks and prove the potential returns, he said. It's similar to downtown Main Street development efforts in towns and cities across the state.
Public entities have built or are constructing park and boat-launch improvements, and nonprofits are organizing events so private enterprises can complete the package, he said.
Toward that end, the heritage area would support the creation of a Main Street manager for the "gateway" communities of Columbia and Marietta in Lancaster County and Wrightsville in York County, he said. Still, seed money for establishing such programs has been harder to come by in recent years.
The heritage area also has contracted with a firm to create a brand for the corridor as another means to help promote the wide-ranging recreational opportunities as a cohesive package, Pinkerton said.
"We have something great to build upon, but we haven't seized upon it," he said.
The environment vs. business balancing act
Shank's Mare is one enterprise already on the front line of offering visitors experiences and associated amenities.
The outdoors outfitter and retailer started in 1978 and had two locations in downtown York and one in the suburbs before buying its current waterfront site in 1996, said Liz Winand, co-owner of Lower Windsor Township-based Twelve Moon Traders Inc., doing business as Shank's Mare.
Educational programming always has been a big part of the endeavor, even when the business was in downtown York, Winand said. The waterfront spot has allowed that to expand.
Today, offerings include guided paddle tours and longer trips in the spring and fall to the nearby Chesapeake Bay, as well as an outdoors camp for kids and Susquehanna River field days that teach school children about river ecology, Winand said.
In the fall and winter, the business moves into hiking, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing mode, and has a dining and learning series with guest speakers covering topics from Native American rock art to the history of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, she said.
Shank's Mare regularly draws customers from around the midstate, the Philadelphia market and the greater Baltimore area, Winand said.
At the same time, the business boasts myriad ecological draws on its own doorstep, from the Conejohela Flats and its cache of vegetation and birds to a stream that is a short walk away with diverse species, she said.
"We've always been a destination location," she said.
During her years working on the river, Winand said, she has seen the quality vastly improve, and with that has come improved attractions to capitalize on. For example, several years ago, there were beds of small freshwater clams; today, the clams are much larger.
But improvements in the ecosystem can even create conflicts among users of the waterway, Winand said. For example, grasses that now flourish in some areas and support young aquatic organisms are something motor boaters don't like very much because the plants can tangle on propellers, she said.
Still, from silt to temperature variations, room exists for improvement that would maximize the river for viewing, paddling and other recreational purposes, Winand said.
Then there are funding conflicts that have threatened efforts to more broadly leverage the resource, Winand said, referring to debate earlier this year over use of the state's Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund.
Part of a roughly $30 million subset of the overall pot of the fund has become an increasingly important source of revenue for groups and local governments trying to leverage improving environmental riches into tourism draws.
As the designated Pennsylvania Heritage Area for the lower Susquehanna River corridor, Platts's group is positioned as a leader and is one of the entities that rely on the Keystone money to help its operations.
Its job is to take the local development efforts for parks and trails, help to bundle them together along with related businesses and create a marketable regional destination to draw outside visitors — maybe even from outside the country, Platts said.
After all, a big part of the American economy can be outsourced — and already has, he said. But outdoor recreation draws are here to stay.
"The Grand Canyon isn't going anywhere," Platts said.
And neither is the river.
A study of several participating state heritage areas found that areas generated about $300 million in visitor spending in 2008, according to the group's website.
The local heritage area has several factors in its favor for maximizing the river's cohesive tourism potential now, including the fact that the Keystone Fund money stayed intact for the commonwealth's 2012-13 budget cycle.
Susquehanna Gateway also recently received a one-time commitment of $75,000 from the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau, with more possible if the county gains permission to raise its hotel room tax for tourism-promotion purposes.
Enabling legislation, however, remains in a state House committee while the legislative body is in recess.
Increasing recognition, attention
Then there's the regional and national attention coming the Susquehanna's way.
Far larger than even the expansive Grand Canyon is the Chesapeake Bay, with thousands of miles of shoreline and an influx of resources and focus to restore it in recent years.
The Susquehanna is the largest single source of its fresh water, and funding from the south is making its way north.
Federal officials decided this spring to designate the Susquehanna River Water Trail's Lower Section among other historic connecting components of the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The move enables the National Park Service to provide technical and financial assistance, resource management, facility enhancement, trail marking and promotion along the connecting trails.
"It's a national recognition that the lower Susquehanna has now received. It's going to help that section of the river get resources," said David Lange, chief of the conservation and recreation assistance division of the Northeast region for the National Park Service.
The money will go toward developing new access sites, using signage and other outreach to tell the story of why the section of the river is significant in a larger context and preserving resources for generations to come, he said.
At the same time, the Susquehanna River corridor in the midstate was named to a top 100 list of significant sites in all 50 states as part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, Lange said.
The initiative was launched by President Barack Obama to help form the nation's conservation and recreation agenda and is a complementary goal to first lady Michelle Obama's efforts to promote physical fitness, he said.
Offering 'authentic experiences'
The Susquehanna has a lot to offer people seeking interesting places for outdoors recreation, Lange said, from several hydroelectric facilities to images painted on rocks in prehistoric times — not to mention the increasing number of bald eagles, a symbol of the nation.
"It's a really unique landscape, and being in close proximity to major metropolitan areas, it seems it has a lot of potential down the road as well," Lange said.
In many places in the Northeast, landscapes and natural features have been paved over, he said. That fate hasn't befallen the Susquehanna River corridor.
"People are really aching for authentic experiences," he said.
At the same time, opportunity exists to market the Susquehanna abroad and potentially to piggyback onto international tourists' visits to places such as Washington, D.C., Lange said.
He recently visited an area of France where outdoors recreation and heritage sites, such as cave paintings, in the surrounding areas are a large part of the experience.
"I think there is a lot more we could be doing to market those experiences to those populations," Lange said.