It started as a local marketing effort. Last May, the Hunterdon County Economic Development officials weren’t trying to attract out-of-towners to the county’s farms, markets and restaurants—they were trying to attract locals. Most people weren’t traveling, and the county wanted to capitalize on folks’ unusually local gaze.
The Hunterdon County 579 Trail follows a historic agricultural corridor running from Bethlehem Township to the Delaware River Valley. By creating the trail, it was as if Hunterdon County Economic Development Director Marc Saluk and his colleagues said, “Hey, look down the street. We’re right here. You didn’t even know!”
The initiative was an organic success, and the work to create the trail was simple enough: Create a website in-house at the EDO, find a graphic designer to make it visually appealing, and connect with all the businesses along the corridor to get a sense of products and events they were offering.
“So much business, to the detriment of small businesses, is done in a kind of siloed fashion where there’s not a lot of community-centric thinking,” said Ironbound Farms owner Charles Rosen, whose business is along the 579 Trail in Asbury. “By aggregating these efforts, creating one collective of these very unique and interesting little businesses creates economic opportunities for everyone along the trail.”
The baseline requirement to be included on the trail, Saluk said, was to be agricultural. Flocktown Farm in Pittstown sells vegetables. The Bubbly Goat in Stockton sells its own goat milk soap. Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford raises and sells pastured meats, milk and homemade baked goods. Dozens more farms and wineries join them. Restaurants on the trail have to use local ingredients.
Many 579 Trail stops host community events, like goat yoga at Mad Lavender Farm in Milford and a spring wine and music series at Old York Cellars in Ringoes. There are several B&Bs and inns on the trail, and Bike Hunterdon created road cycling routes to encourage trail exploration on two wheels.
Check out our slideshow, featuring photos from stops along Hunterdon County’s 579 Trail!
“As a small farm, we’re a blip on the radar for a lot of people,” said Gorgeous Goat Creamery owner Maria Stewart, a member of the 579 Trail and beneficiary of the trail’s oft-updated online event calendar. “Earlier this year we had baby goat snuggle sessions, and almost every snuggle [and] baby goat bottling session was full. The 579 Trail has done a really great job of connecting the local communities with all the great agricultural enterprises right next door that they may have not even known existed.”
Hunterdon County Commissioner Matt Holt said he started the concept of economic development in Hunterdon County, where it was never a concern before, in 2008. The effects of the Great Recession were hitting the county, one of the nation’s wealthiest, and after the number of households in the county declined dramatically, he began to get through to people that “economic development is not the same as tearing up cornfields. It’s about building a sustainable economy.”
Holt is a Hunterdon County native and the former mayor of Clinton. His wife owns Market Pizza in Stockton Market, a small but eclectic food hall in the river town of Stockton, which falls within the 579 corridor and has been open for 12 years.
In the midst of the pandemic, the 579 Trail “gave people fresh local perspective at exactly the time they were looking for it.”
“I know many of the businesses along the trail, and every single business has seen people walking into their locations and markets, who walk in for the first time who live within the county and had no idea that whatever entity they were in even existed,” Holt said.
The 579 Trail website is slated for upgrades this year. Because of its success last year, county commissioners put the initiative in the budget, and the new platform will allow Saluk’s team to create tour itineraries with geographic information system maps. Users will also be able to go onto the website and create their own itinerary. Kristen Cook of Studio 39 Design in Flemington will remain the site’s graphic designer: Saluk attributes some of the trail’s success to the identity her quality graphics gave to the trail.
As out-of-region travel becomes normal again, what will become of the trail?
“Do we expand our focus from here [to include tourists]? Absolutely. But in terms of from a business perspective, while you love tourist business to come through the door, when you can get locals to come in and be regular customers, that’s valuable,” Holt said. “If you really think about it, this is why the trail is so critical. There are so many people that prior to COVID were doing nothing more than commuting to New York and coming back that never stopped to just look around and say, ‘you know what? Everything I need is right here.’”