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Outdoors AT thru-hikers give Franklin a thumbs up

It’s been almost a year since the Town of Franklin was officially designated an Appalachian Trail Community by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. A survey conducted last spring found that AT hikers passing through Franklin reported it was a “hiker-friendly” town.

According to Bill Van Horn, the survey also paints a very different picture of thru-hikers than what some residents and business owners may think of them. “Just because they’re a bit unkempt and need a shower, doesn’t mean they’re uneducated and don’t have a good income,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn, past president of the Nantahala Hiking Club (NHC) and member of the town’s Appalachian Trail Community (ATC) Committee, spearheaded the survey which collected demographic information on the hikers. Among other things, the survey showed 38 percent of 251 respondents reporting incomes of more than $40,000 a year. Of those, 19 percent reported yearly incomes greater than $60,000.

On average, each hiker who responded to the survey spent $153 during their time in Franklin and a total of $38,339 was spent at Franklin hotels and other businesses. Of those who stayed the night in town, 67 percent stayed one night, 19 percent stayed for two nights and 7 percent spent three or four nights.

“I think some people and business owners would be surprised to know that,” Van Horn said of the relative affluence revealed by the survey.

The hiker survey was developed by NHC with input from the ATC Committee and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Between March 1 and May 31, 2010, 251 surveys were collected from hikers passing through Franklin. Surveys were located at local hotels, Three Eagles Outfitters and at the daily hiker breakfast at First Baptist Church (which garnered 80 percent of the surveys). Every single respondent to the survey indicated that Franklin was a hiker-friendly town.

Another surprising part of the survey for Van Horn was the education level of the hikers. Sixty-four percent reported having a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those, 16 percent had completed a Masters or Doctorate degree.

“There are actually a bunch of educated folks out there enjoying the trail,” Van Horn said, adding that he hopes the survey will encourage the town, businesses and individuals to look at ways to support AT hikers, whether they are day hikers, section hikers or “thruhikers” out to do the entire 2,175 miles of the trail in one season.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that there were 1,460 north-bound thru-hikers last year. An estimated 747 reached Harpers Ferry, Va., and 349 (26 percent) reached the northern end of the trail at Mt. Katahdin, Md.

The average age range for the hikers, according to the survey, was 26 to 35 – 29 percent were 15 to 25; 29 percent were 25 to 35; 12 percent were 36 to 45; 13 percent were 46 to 55; and 18 percent were over 55. What is most striking about that data, says Van Horn, is the relatively even spread of ages. “Normally, you think of folks who just graduated high school or college. Then you get people who have just retired. But there is a pretty good middle age group coming through, too.”

Van Horn believes the Appalachian Trail represents a great opportunity for Franklin. “Obviously, being only 111 miles up the trail, we get a lot of people who haven’t quit yet,” he noted. “About 1,400 to 1,500 start out every year at Springer Mountain, Ga., where the trail begins. How many come through Franklin? I would like them all to.”

Between Hiwasee and Nantahala Outdoor Center, Franklin is the only place to resupply, notes Van Horn. He believes Franklin is in a better position to support the hikers and should take advantage of the situation. “We’ve got to advertise and let them know we’re here,” he said.

Linda Schlott of the Franklin Main Street Program agrees. “They don’t come in and just spend the night,” she said of the AT hikers. “They buy supplies, they get pizza, they go to the post office.”

Schlott, who also sits on the ATC Committee, says the town is continuing to look for ways to support the hikers. The April Fool’s Trail Days celebration is looking to expand this year and is moving downtown to accommodate more people and better entertainment. Also, a Hiker Services Map will be available to help hikers find what they need around town.

AT hikers, like the three above who passed through Macon County last year on their way to Maine, have reported in a survey that Franklin is a “hikerfriendly town.” Town leaders hope more hikers will stop and discover the area’s hospitality.Besides the quantitative data, the survey also gave hikers a chance to give general comments and suggestion. Of the 60 who chose to write general comments, 20 commented on the need for local transportation options in Franklin. Another eight remarked on the need for more sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly crossings.

Other respondents noted a need for laundry facilities at hotels, a hiker hostel, more bike rental options, more vegan/vegetarian options, an internet café and more selection at the outfitters in town. While some comments such as the town being too spread out are difficult to address, Van Horn says there are many opportunities indicated by the comments. “It will be up to the local businesses to really step up with the services and initiative to meet these needs,” he said.

Many surveys also included positive comments about Franklin, specifically about the hiker shuttle services (10) and the ease of getting a ride into town by hitchhiking (4). Two comments about the need for a town map and list of hiker services available may indicate that the town needs to do more to get out information about resources such as the Hiker Services Map.

Van Horn, who has section-hiked more than half of the Appalachian Trail with his wife, Sharon, says that though it is difficult to find comparative data for other AT Communities, in his experience Franklin stacks up very well. “I think we do a pretty good job,” he said, but added that there is a lot more that could be done to accommodate hikers when they are here. Whether it’s businesses offering discounts or more transportation options, he hopes the community and individuals will keep looking for ways support and encourage the hikers.

“I’m really proud of how people have reached out to the hikers,” said Ron Haven, a Macon County commissioner and hotel owner who has organized the annual Hiker Bash in Franklin for several years. Haven, who also operates a shuttle service for hikers, says he believes the Conservancy reports actually underestimate the number of thru-hikers every year. He reports that during the main season between March 15 and April 15, he shuttles anywhere from 75 to 100 hikers between the trail and downtown.

“I think they are really good for the economy, especially this time of year,” Haven said of the hikers’ impact on local businesses. When day hikers and section hikers are included, Haven says there may be as many as 8,000 to 10,000 hikers that pass through Franklin every year.

Town Alderman Bob Scott, who is the board’s liaison to the ATC Committee, commended Van Horn for his efforts in bringing attention to the opportunity represented by the Appalachian Trail for Franklin. “I really think the Appalachian Trail can have a significant economic impact in this town,” he said. Scott also noted that Van Horn was instrumental in the push to have Franklin established as an AT Community.

Van Horn says the designation has already given the town more exposure. For example, in guidebooks produced by the ATC Franklin is now highlighted as a community that is “going out of its way to support hikers, whether they are thru-hikers, section hikers or just day hikers.”

“The question is we’ve got this great natural resource right outside of town, what are we going to do with it? Whether for the economy, for our health, our peace of mind, I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to maximizing the benefit that the AT has for us,” said Scott.

Third Annual April Fools Trail Days Festival & Hikers Bash

The Third Annual April Fools Trail Days festival is scheduled this year for April 1 and 2 (Friday and Saturday). This year, the festival has been moved to downtown Franklin, a short shuttle ride (11 miles) from the AT at Winding Stair Gap. In addition to food and gear vendors, there will be information booths and special guests, including Jennifer Pharr Davis, the women’s record holder of the fastest thru-hike of the trail. This year’s festival will offer more entertainment, including the blue grass outfit Buncombe Turnpike and others. The annual Hiker’s Bash, hosted by Ronnie Haven at the Sapphire Inn on East Main Street, will take place during the same weekend, beginning at 6 p.m. each evening. For more information about these events, call (828)524-2516.

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