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Swatara project aims to bring dollars upriver

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Sous chef Andrew Dietrich plates food at the Woods Creek Grill in Lebanon County near Swatara State Park. Local business owners believe the park improvements currently under way will increase small-business activity in the rural area. Photo/Amy Spangler
Sous chef Andrew Dietrich plates food at the Woods Creek Grill in Lebanon County near Swatara State Park. Local business owners believe the park improvements currently under way will increase small-business activity in the rural area. Photo/Amy Spangler

Stakeholders near Swatara State Park in Lebanon and Schuylkill counties are touting long-awaited developments such as trail improvements, parking areas and better access to watercraft launches as a boon to small-business activity in the rural area.

Outdoor recreation enthusiasts are prime potential customers for the Union Township-based Woods Creek Grill, a roughly 2-year-old business that features taxidermy mounts on the walls and wild game on the table, said Dave DeWees, president of Woods Creek Corp. and co-owner with Greg Kaiser

It's one of the few sit-down restaurants in the area and draws an eclectic clientele, from Appalachian Trail hikers at the end of a day of walking to out-of-state travelers who find it through partnerships with hotels in the Interstate 81 corridor, he said.

"We are a viable option for them," DeWees said.

The corporation formed as an umbrella for a wide range of potential hospitality developments on the 5-acre property DeWees and his wife acquired for its picturesque location, he said.

A fire a few years ago and the subsequent need for building renovations led him to think about the site's possibilities, resulting in Woods Creek, DeWees said.

For example, there's already a side business of catering special events, and the site has exhibited nature art, he said.

With the state park improvements, DeWees said he absolutely believes more people will come to the area to hike, bike and fish, and that will be good for his enterprise.

"If we get more traffic, the sky is the limit," he said.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said earlier this year that the work at the park would be a $4.7 million improvement initiative.

A midstate company, York County-based Kinsley Construction Inc., received the contract for work to help improve day-use recreation, DCNR said.

The plan included installing 10 miles of crushed stone trails along a rail bed and part of the abandoned Old State Road, a new trail and bridge near Sand Siding Road and another bridge spanning Mill Creek, the agency said.

Improved parking areas, or trailheads, will help people access watercraft launch areas for canoeing and kayaking the park's central waterway more easily, DCNR said.

About 67,000 people visited the park last year, even without this project, and the number is expected to go up after the improvements, said Terry Brady, spokesman for DCNR.

Fully capitalizing on the site as a recreational draw began in the 1970s but was hampered by water-quality issues and little support for a plan at the time to dam the creek, he said.

Getting the money allocated to invest in the project, designed with the help of user feedback, also has been an issue, Brady said.

However, in the interim, people have been drawn to the park for kayaking and canoeing despite the area not having the improvements for visitors to launch their crafts, Brady said.

Based on public-use surveys, the most-popular state parks generally are the ones that have bodies of water of one form or another, ranging from large lakes to trout streams, he said.

DCNR has been steering a lot of its available grant money toward potential water-related activity generators as a result and working with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission to establish water trails, Brady said.

For all uses, the agency released figures earlier this year stating that each dollar it invests in upkeep and improvements generates $12 in economic activity for adjacent Pennsylvania communities.

Also, about $274 million of the more than $1 billion in economic activity related to state parks that was measured in 2010 came from out-of-state visitors, DCNR said.

The improvements have been a long time coming for Jo Ellen Litz and other members of Lebanon County-based Swatara Watershed Association Inc.

Litz is a Lebanon County commissioner and president of the group, which this spring wrapped up its 24th canoe-powered cleanup of the waterway, she said. The association formed to advocate for cleanup and mitigation of acid mine drainage and other water-quality-lowering factors in the watershed.

This legacy of other, more industrial and relatively temporary uses of the area, such as coal mining, was a big part of slowing down the park's development mid-process in the 1970s, Litz said.

Some thought it was a problem that could not be overcome, she said. But she and others set out to prove otherwise.

With the improvements, people could set up shops selling watercraft or servicing bicycles, or places where people could buy running accessories to take advantage of the trails, she said.

Relatively speaking, there aren't a whole lot of businesses in the area today, and entrepreneurs have the opportunity to get on the ground floor, Litz said.

River recap

The Susquehanna River

• Flows 444 miles from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Havre de Grace, Md.

• Has about 4 million people living in its drainage basin

• Is North America's longest commercially non-navigable river

• Has a normal flow of about 18 million gallons per minute at its mouth

• Contains water from a 27,510-square-mile area and has more than 49,000 miles of waterways in its basin

• Has a watershed that is one of the most flood-prone areas of the country, with damages averaging about $150 million annually

Source: Susquehanna River Basin Commission

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