A few years ago, Dejay Birtch was riding his bike around Port Jervis, New York, and he couldn’t help but notice the decline of the city around him. As a Port Jervis native, Dejay remembers a time when the city was bustling with culture and business, but that time seemed to have waned: important businesses were shuttering, and cultural vices were on the rise. There simply wasn’t much going on in the area. Pedaling around town, he imagined the possibilities.
Although Dejay had relocated some 20 years ago, frequent visits to the quaint, historic town kept him in touch with the people and current issues of the area. A long-time pedal crusher and advocate for all things cycling, Dejay’s mind naturally turned to his sport as a catalyst for change.
“I remember one ride through the woods there,” Dejay recounts. “It came to me suddenly: ‘I could build a trail system here and it could save the town.” And so it began.
Turning Dreams into Reality
Dejay immediately began calling around, looking for support. “It wasn’t easy. Some of the city officials weren’t behind it at first,” he said. “I’ve never been one to tackle small goals–I always tell myself, ‘Push forward and you never know what you’ll accomplish.'”
It wasn’t long before Mayor Kelly Decker and a number of City Council members got behind the idea. By utilizing the existing Elks-Brox Park and combining it with conjoining city and private property, nearly 500 acres of land were allocated to the trail project. A core group of volunteers put their heads together and began staking out a whopping 50 miles of multi-use trail throughout what was to be named the Watershed Park.
“We were really winging it at first,” said Mayor Decker. “A number of core individuals went above and beyond.” Everyone brought something different to the table. A few individuals championed the administrative duties, acquiring trail-head signage and the like, Mayor Decker developed the park’s Emergency Management Plan, and a few seasoned trail-builders began breaking ground at the park.
Now, just over two years later, some 30 miles of trails exist at the Watershed Park, and that number is growing by the week. “It has been a herculean effort by a very small group of people,” says Dejay. Some of the volunteers are out blazing new miles of trail every week. They’re driven by what Dejay refers to as the ‘fuel of passion’. “These guys know what [the park] means to the city and what it can bring to the area.”
An Under-Utilized Past
The Watershed Park is situated along the north of Port Jervis, NY, incorporating the beautiful views of ‘Point Peter‘, which offers a gorgeous lookout over the Delaware River and the three-state borders. It’s really a vast tract of land, boasting three water reservoirs, varying terrain, and areas of old-growth trees.
While Point Peter itself has been accessible for some time, much of the surrounding land has been off-limits since the 70’s. Concern for protecting the reservoirs’ water-quality pushed authorities at the time to shut the area off from recreational use. At the time, there were simply no means of ensuring the land’s upkeep, safety, and sanitation.
In many ways this closure handicapped the area’s growth in the following decades. As ecotourism culture grew, Port Jervis–a town with plenty of nature to boast–had very little to offer. Business growth had stagnated, and the exciting downtown atmosphere diminished. Despite its proximity to major cities and highways, lack of tourism made the city unattractive to entrepreneurs and new businesses.
A Busy Future
Since re-opening the land, a number of individuals, organizations, and interest groups have pitched in to ensure upkeep of the park. “We have to keep it pristine,” said the Mayor. And pristine they have kept it. Groups like the Outdoor Club of Port Jervis have really championed trail-keeping responsibilities. Despite concerns from some local residents, the land is recognizably safer, cleaner, and better-utilized than ever before.
Organized by Starcrawf Promotions, the Watershed Park now hosts three mountain bike races each year. The Erie 80, the longest of them, is as much cycling festival as it is bike race, bringing in vendors, musicians, and spectators from across the entire region. Showcases like this have an economic impact lasting much longer than the event itself, drawing weekend warriors back into the area time and time again.
Hikers, bikers, and rafters come from all over, lodging and dining downtown before venturing out into the surrounding parks. Mayor Kelly claims 10-15 new businesses have been established in the wake of Port Jervis’ new tide of tourism. New breweries, coffee shops, and yoga studios have found a fertile marketplace for business. A white water rafting park is in the works, with construction to begin in August of 2018. The potential seems limitless. It’s as if this small town has found a new identity–a new vision of itself; and by all accounts, it seems to be working.