By Garrett Dvorkin
Herald Staff Reporter
Oil Creek has been a lifeblood for people in the Oil Valley for centuries. The river, which the native Americans noted had oil slicks on the surface, helped carry oil barrels down its banks for decades.
The creek is now set to carry a different type of passenger, kayakers and recreation tourists, and officials hope it can help revitalize the region.
Both Crawford and Venango County commissioners took action this week to make that dream possible, approving memorandums of understanding with the Oil Region Alliance (ORA).
In 2017, Oil Creek officially received its designation as an official state water trail. This designation only came after a feasibility study established that the creek had enough flow to make it a viable trail for nearly year-round recreation.
The portion that was studied was a roughly 30-mile stretch of the waterway that includes the creek’s flow between Titusville and Oil City, a stretch of water that goes through the Oil Creek State Park.
More than four years later, even though it has been designated as a water trail, both the counties and the Oil Region Alliance noticed that there was not much information about the water trail out there, and that this resource needed to be promoted for what it is — a great place to spend an afternoon paddling.
That lack of information and marketing led to the memorandum of understanding approved by both counties this week.
As ORA Chief Executive Officer John Phillips put it, “It means bringing awareness, organization and something to market.”
The Oil Region Alliance will help guide future action along the water trail, as they try to create an infrastructure for the trail so that more people can enjoy it.
Phillips sees outfitters along the water trail, and several spots where tourists, or residents alike, can stop and get something to eat or something to drink.
“What is miles of trail without somewhere to eat,” he said.
He hopes that once the infrastructure is in place, Oil Creek could turn into a hotspot where those who enjoy the outdoors can come, stay a night or two, and have a great time.
“You want to create memorable experiences, life-changing experiences,” he said, “As a region we want people to build a scrapbook (of good memories).”
While the Oil Region Alliance is excited to help grow the trail, they understand that none of this could have been done without the help of both Crawford and Venango County, partners in the project since the beginning.
“I’m glad the commissioners of both counties have confidence in us,” said Phillips.
He said he cherishes the relationship that the ORA has been able to cultivate with the counties and their commissioners, and that the teamwork is something that has impressed him.
“These counties are working together in ways I haven’t seen before,” he said.
Crawford County Commissioner Eric Henry also said that these organizations coming together will lead to nothing but good for residents in his county.
“I think the more partnerships and collaborations that we can create for the benefit of our county is important when it comes to the success of these projects,” Henry said.
Henry believes that the more spotlight on the counties recreation opportunities, the more Crawford County can grow.
As Phillips put it, the outdoor amenities in the county are “God-given gifts,” and the area “needs to capitalize” on those gifts.
The Oil Creek Water Trail also fits into the plan that the county has been working on.
The Crawford County Visitors Bureau, according to Henry, “is in the process of creating a program highlighting the many outdoor amenities we have including our lakes and trails.”
The Crawford County commissioners are a group that has worked extensively with the ORA on many projects through the years.
Commissioner Francis Weiderspahn is their representative on the ORA board, and Henry said that he does “a great job of keeping the commissioners informed of all of their projects.”
The Venango County Commissioners were just as excited for the water trail.
Commissioner Sam Breene said that 10 years ago, when he would spend time on the creek, he could go the entire way without seeing a soul on the water. Now, he sees many smiling faces and that has benifited Venango County.
The Venango Commissioners see the water trail as an asset that could lead to growth for the entire Oil Valley.
However, as of recent, according to Commissioner Mike Dulaney, that asset has not been capitalized on. “To not utilize the creek is a huge opportunity missed,” he said.
With the abundance of outdoor amenities in Venango County, Dulaney said that he has seen the local economy “really lean into bike and water trails.”
When the county looked at zip codes on users of bike and water trails, they noticed that there were more non-local users than local.
“Outside money is coming in and we need to capture it,” said Dulaney.
With everyone working together, Phillips believes that progress is inevitable. Part of what gives him the confidence is what he has seen at the county level.
Phillips and his organization want to help the counties in the “arenas” that the ORA specializes in, things that he said his organization is “good at,” like fundraising and spreading awareness.
“Nobody can do it alone,” said Phillips, “We have to work together.”
Dvorkin can be reached by email at Gdvorkin@titusvilleherald.com.