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Can tourism help revive West Virginia’s coal-based economy?

Jan 28, 2016

MINDEN, WV - Jimmy Kimmel could have a field day in West Virginia.

The ironies are rampant. Folks in Washington, D.C., pay $20 a pound for ramps; here locals harvest ramps in the hollows – and eat them for free. If you raft, mountain bike and rock climb, you’re a hippie, but not if you fish.

Below this underbelly of comedy the story changes. The extraction industry – think coal -- that has carried West Virginia for better or for worse for decades is phasing out. So what’s next? Can tourism help revive West Virginia’s economy?

The tourism industry is a bit of the odd man out in the economic-drivers department in West Virginia. It sits alongside chemical manufacturing, biotech, energy, aerospace development and automotive manufacturing. It’s an understatement to say there’s some work to do to get the tourism numbers big enough to help fill the employment and revenue gaps the coal extraction left behind.

However, there is a small army of folks working hard to build a new long-term economy. The energy comes from a web of state and private concerns working in tandem to enhance economic opportunities through tourism. Efforts come from musicians, artisans and artists, farmers and outdoor adventure centers. Perhaps an unlikely combination of folks, but they are connected and they are passionate. Change is in the air. Meet just a few of the many people leading change and working to save West Virginia’s economy…

“We’re so much more than coal or natural gas,” said Joseph Carlucci with the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority in Beckley, WV. He is quick to add that this region is the empire of river rafting in the eastern United States.

Helping lead the tourism charge is Amy Goodwin who was handled the reins of state tourism in June 2014. She compares restructuring West Virginia’s approach to the tourism industry to remodeling a house.

“We knew from the first week of being on the ground that we have to do some deep dives. We’re not just putting new countertops in the kitchen. We began taking off all wallpaper, paint and countertops. When Tina and I stood in the empty hallways, we thought, if we are going to start building back, we’re not just throwing up what we think should be done,” Goodwin said.

Her strategy for remodeling focused research and information. Longwoods International, a Toronto-based research company, revealed a $5.1 billion industry in a state of 1.8 million people, of whom 46,000 are dependent on the industry.

More fun for Kimmel. The study showed that West Virginia was the one state in the country without a social media presence.

“We started building a larger digital presence,” Goodwin said. “We had also lost our grasp on branding.” This required change, “good but always hard.” Her department started supporting sectors such as the rafting business in the New River Gorge. “For the first time this year, the white water rafting industry is up.” The same skin-in-the-game strategy has gone into skiing and gaming. New photos and videos are now “by a West Virginian and are of West Virginians themselves engaged in the activities: these are our own skiers, jeep riders and chefs. People don’t want fake; they want real. Our image branding is all real.” And the focus is on experiences – not on things.

This department’s work is supported by a current budget of around $7 million, thanks to the legislature that recently approved one of the largest increases to the tourism budget in a decade. Building a strong and supportive tourism industry is part of the plan. She said the goal is to hear guests report: “This was the best river but my guide was so great; my chef came out and talked to me; my hotel staff was over and above what everybody should be. They treated me like gold.”

ACE Adventure Resort near the New River Gorge is a private company that experienced growth in its rafting sector in 2015. Business was up nearly 10 percent, reported Heidi Prior, marketing director. She is optimistic that the state’s efforts and resort initiatives will mean more jobs for more people in the near future. ACE for example, employs over 500 people in Fayette County. Tourism is big in the New River Gorge.

“The game here isn’t of thrones but of heads in beds”. Adam Harris is executive producer of Mountain Stage Radio Show out of Charleston, WV, that’s broadcast to 155 National Public Radio stations. The show now approaching its 33rd year hosts 26 live events annually, drawing some 13,000 annually, of whom 25 percent come from outside the state. Economic multipliers indicate, he said, that these visitors spend between $100 and $200 on travel expenses. This is aside from the 400 or so hotel rooms the show books for its guest artists.

“The economic impact of heads in beds the legislature can understand,” Harris said. “This is a cool place to hear great, live music, have a handcrafted meal and shop for local handcrafts. People today are looking for a well-rounded experience that they discover themselves. Coming to town to raft is just one part of their trip.

The creative economy from open studio weekends to craft beer distribution is intrinsic to the tourism infrastructure, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the Tamarack Artisan Foundation in Charleston, WV.

Natalie Roper is executive director of Generation West Virginia focused on creating economic opportunities for young people. This organization views broadband – a fiber optic state highway -- as crucial to the remaining 56 percent of West Virginia that lacks high speed internet access.

“Today people won’t set foot out of the door without Wi-Fi. People cannot imagine visiting a place without internet. Even on vacations people need connectivity to stay on top of things,” Roper said. The possibility of the state owning a fiber optic network is under consideration. But private interests don’t want the competition. West Virginia is really understanding the importance of this infrastructure, how broadband impacts everything. It is foundational to the state’s economic potential.”

A marketing specialist for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, Cindy Martel grew up in Vermont, a state not unlike West Virginia for its scenic beauty, small population and emerging agritourism. West Virginia has the highest per capita population of farms in the United States and the lowest income per capita. She explained that in 2014 the average farm size in West Virginia was 169 acres. Overall farmland was 3.6 million acres with an estimated 21,300 farms. The average net income of a West Virginia farm was about $2,500; however the number of farm operators reporting net losses (12,629) outnumbers the number of farm operators reporting net gains (8,839).

“We know that our future is with young and new farmers. We need to provide opportunities to make farming sustainable. Agritourism is a way to do that. There’s a wonderful movement afloat. At least half of farm operators are now women,” Martel said. Also there’s been what she called “a huge explosion” in high tunnels, structures like greenhouses that allow off-season production and furthers the goal of winter markets and farm to school efforts. But our biggest challenge is finding people to produce product. Demand isn’t the issue; supply is.” She said the state consumes over $7 billion in food but produces less than $1 billion. “This is a $6 billion economic opportunity.”

Here’s another handout to Kimmel.

The state may want to consider changing a law that doesn’t let diners have a drink with Sunday brunch – before 1 p.m.

Can tourism help revive West Virginia’s coal-based economy?

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