As rural southwestern Pennsylvania lost manufacturing jobs in the 1990s, community leaders turned to tourism as a potential economic driver. But access to capital was a major roadblock for the region’s fledgling tourism sector, recalls David Kahley, CEO of The Progress Fund.
“If we wanted to grow the industry, we needed to start our own bank to fund a new wave of rural-based tourism businesses,” he recalls. “In 1997, Karen Post, the other co-founder, and I started The Progress Fund to make those loans. In essence, we took on the mission to grow this industry one business at a time.”
Since then, The Progress Fund, based in Greensburg, has made 455 loans totaling $56.5 million to 276 small businesses including restaurants, outdoor outfitters, campgrounds, B&Bs, farms, wineries and distilleries. The Fund has also expanded its mission to support local food producers, trails and related real estate initiatives in order to maximize tourism opportunities.
For example, when the Great Allegheny Passage was being built, bicycle tourists were finding and riding it, but visitation was restrained by the lack of high-quality services along the trail. In surveys, riders asked for more B&Bs and inns, restaurants, bike and retail shops.
“Without more of these businesses, the region was losing opportunity,” explains Kahley. “So, 10 years ago, we made the trail towns along the Passage a priority. We continue to try to help any entrepreneur that wants to serve this still growing market. We also work to make the towns and trailheads more rider-friendly. We’ve improved directional and business signs, and have purchased and are redeveloping multiple properties that were eyesores at key locations.”
“The tourism opportunities we saw years ago are still growing,” he adds. “We will stay our course and grow so we have resources available for businesses that will take advantage of future opportunities. As for new focus areas, trail groups are working on a new regional network of 1,600 miles of recreational trails running through hundreds of small communities. Think of all those business opportunities and the real estate that needs to be redeveloped to support that growth. We are.”
Source: David Kahley, The Progress Fund
Writer: Elise Vider