ST. LOUIS — In the little towns of Defiance and Augusta, the great recession already ended last year.
The reason is the Katy Trail, which is showing a 50 percent increase in bikers, hikers and runners this year in St. Charles County. All that exercise makes people hungry and thirsty, meaning boom times for wineries, eateries and other little businesses along the trail.
"I'm up 22 percent for the year," says Todd White, owner of the Katy Trail Bike Rental in Defiance. "I think we're benefiting from the down economy. Bicycling is a pretty affordable family-friendly activity."
White rents bikes for $5 per hour or $20 per day.
From January to July, 62,794 people hiked, jogged or biked the section of Katy Trail State Park between St. Charles and Weldon Spring, according to an estimate by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. That's up from the 41,661 users in the same period last year. By contrast, usage in the entire state park system is up only 5 percent this year.
This year's Katy figures are more in line with the 56,800 recorded in the first seven months of 2007 and the 60,200 in 2006.
Rainy, dreary weekends catch the blame for 2008's slump. Last year was the wettest year on record in St. Louis. But the cool, sunny summer of 2009 is bringing out the bikers.
Among them is Cathy Williams, an intelligence officer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Arnold.
"This is like therapy for me," she says. "I feel safe here. I carry pepper spray, but I've never had to use it."
One day last week, she pedaled with her teenage daughter and a friend from near their home in Washington, Mo., to have lunch at the Tavern in Defiance, a 36-mile round trip.
Her friend, Whitney Narup, 20, has another motive.
"It gets rid of this and this and this," she says, patting her belly, then her thighs, then pinching her upper arms.
Shayne Hummel will help put the pounds back on again. He bought the Tavern last year and has seen business rise by an "easy 20 percent."
The Tavern is part a local hangout and part a rendezvous for two kinds of bikers. Some arrive by pedal power. "I got groups that ride down from St. Charles (20 miles away) for breakfast," he says.
But on weekends, the Tavern and the bar across the street are haunts for motorcyclists who arrive by the pack after winding over the hilly country roads.
On a recent cloudy day, three preschool teachers from west St. Louis County were walking their bicycles up the steep hill that leads from the Katy to the Sugar Creek Vineyards & Winery.
At the top was Ken Miller, owner of the hilltop restaurant, with a view of the pretty Missouri river valley. Business — as measured by gallons of wine sold — is up 10 to 12 percent this year.
"We're tracking on probably one of our best years," says Miller, who has run the winery since 1994.
Miller says his business is built on people from St. Charles and St. Louis counties who "want to relax a bit, get a bottle of wine and forget what they heard on the news that week."
A few miles down the trail, Steve Neukomm was thanking nature for the 20-percent boost in business at his Augusta Brewing Co. brew pub, which climbs a hillside between the trail and the town of Augusta.
"A good chunk of it is the weather," says Neukomm. But he also thinks the bad economy is persuading people to forgo expensive vacations and seek fun close to home.
Neukomm opened the restaurant 10 years ago, thinking he'd draw most of his customers from the town itself and tourists visiting area wineries.
"On our first day of business, every table we had was off the Katy Trail. I thought, 'Wow, I didn't see that coming,'" he says.
At the Katy Trail Bike Rental shop, White says he hasn't raised his rental price in seven years.
"It's a business model that drives traffic," he says. The goal is to lure people in with a cheap bike rental and hope they'll buy snacks or a bicycle shirt or something else. "If people are coming through the shop, you'll make money," says White.
White's shop is in an old general store built in 1898. He shares the building with his wife, Robin, who runs the Robin's Nest gift shop. The two have developed a side business hauling bikes and bikers to various points on the trail, sometimes all the way to its beginning in Clinton in western Missouri.
Often, he picks those people up at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
"I get a lot of people from California and Colorado. They say the solitude is what's so appealing," White says.
Missouri has no beaches or mountains, but the quiet, rolling countryside contrasts with busy Western parks, he says.