Building an Economy on Outdoor Tourism

Horseback riding in Southwest Virginia. Photo credit: Rewire.

As Southwest Virginia struggles to adapt to the decline of the century-old coal industry, the region is taking a radical approach to economic development, reports Rewire. Writes the online Maryland publication: “Historically, natural resources in Appalachia have been mined, but southwest Virginia is trying to re-envision the hills, woods, and mountains of the state for outdoor tourism—and in the process, hold onto its younger residents.”

What is outdoor tourism? It covers the kind of activities one normally associates with the outdoors — hiking, biking, camping, fishing, kayaking, rock-climbing, horseback riding, and the like. But it also includes cultural assets such as the Crooked Road music trail and the Round the Mountain craft network.

No roller coasters or waterslide parks for Southwest Virginia. “We promote, preserve, and protect what’s unique to this region, so we haven’t invested in things that can be found in a variety of other locations,” says Jenna Wagner, marketing director of Friends of SWVA. “The Crooked Road, for example, is based on music that is specific to this region. We’re working to maintain that quality of [resources that are] really unique to the region that you can’t experience anywhere else.”

The initiative is yielding results — not transformative results, but perhaps something to build upon. Peter Hackbert, director of entrepreneurship for the public good at Berea College, has studied towns in Southwest Virginia such as Abingdon and Damascus (close to the coalfields but not in them). He interviewed 60 international travelers to the region from as far as Europe and Australia. “We saw people coming from out of state, enjoying themselves, and spending money.”

And the region seems to be doing a better job of hanging onto educated young people. According to the Friends of SWVA: “[T]he proportion of the SWVA population comprised of those 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher was at 2.3% in 2000 and had increased to 3.04% by 2015. There is also a strong positive correlation between in the increase in travel expenditures and the rise in the young, educated population.”

Bacon’s bottom line: You can only make so much money and employ so many people off of bikers, back-backers and bluegrass concerts. The idea is to create amenities that people who live in Southwest Virginia can enjoy. Organizing fiddler concerts and developing access points along the Clinch River creates pride in community and provides recreational options that didn’t exist before. If such activities also help keep young people from moving out, that’s a big bonus. If out-of-town people decide to settle there, all the better. When the coal is all mined out, you build on what you’ve got — and Southwest Virginia has a distinctive, under-appreciated culture and a fantastic outdoors.

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2 responses to “Building an Economy on Outdoor Tourism”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Actually, I’d argue the opposite. People with kids are the big cost in most settlement patterns. What is desired is people who will come and “spend money and leave” or retired people with hefty pensions and no kids….who will “spend”.

    When we talk of cities – we talk about “good jobs that pay well” but then almost in the same breadth – the necessary, even vital under-class who do not earn enough money to “afford” a place to live or who live in low-income neighborhoods where their kids attend the worst of the worst schools.

    Is that better than doing service-related work in more rural areas for “tourism” when you likely will have a modest home with a garden and a local school that serves a more diverse demographic spectrum that the stratified urban schools?

    People who live “urban” go to places like Myrtle Beach or BIg Meadows on Skyline Drive or the Creeper Trail in SW Va… where they DO spend money on lodging, restaurants, fuel, etc..

    No.. rural will never be the economic powerhouses that urban job centers are but to treat it as a great wasteland inhabited by hapless victims is not true either.

    We were on our way to NC to view the eclipse when we got word that there were no accommodations to be had – not even camping! We make an annual pilgrimage to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in NC which most folks won’t even know exists but if you like the outdoors and paddling rivers – it’s a true destination and no shortage of other “attractions” … restaurants, lodging, etc…

    People who live in urbanized area yearn to “get away for a few days” and that’s fertile ground to be plowed… and is…

    All over Virginia and NC are enclaves of retired folks… usually “lake” communities with upscale amenities .. away from the hellholes like NoVa.
    PLENTY of jobs exist in these places… no they are not high-paying “knowledge” economy jobs but they are sufficient to “afford” some truly “affordable” housing.. the schools are well-funded from the tax-generating retirement communities..

    the major caveat is that they are not robust, ever-expanding job centers.. but they are also not economic wastelands either… though clearly there are winners and losers… with some rural close to economic wastelands if they do not have a “plan”.

    If you are skeptical.. check out the rural interstate highways on weekends.. they’re not exactly devoid of traffic… and they’re all not going to visit the grandparents!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    In a way – you could say that the higher income folks in urban areas are subsidized by the lower income – who despite working 40-60 hours a week do not make enough for an “affordable” home nor enough for their health care or pensions..or to take care of their kids or send them to good schools.

    And these folks become entitlement tax burdens of everyone else – urban and suburban and rural.

    yet we have folks who say we need to “abandon” rural va because they are a “burden” on the urban areas… where all those low paid service workers live.. and barely survive… in fact.. the “solution” seems to be to send the rural folks to the cities to “work”… as low paid service workers who can barely survive!


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