Selling Bottles of Water and Granola Bars

If the future of Southwest Virginia is tourism, the region doesn’t have much of a future. So concludes Southwest Virginia blogger Jerry Fuhrman (From on High) in a column for the Gazette in Galax. Fuhrman doesn’t see much coming from the hope expressed by some local politicians that the antidote to the declining manufacturing base is luring more tourists, bikers and hikers to the region.

Implicit in that policy recommendation, he says:

Southwest Virginia has nothing going for it save some rocks and bushes, so we need to promote what little we have in the forlorn hope that we can lure northerners down here to partake of our scenic splendor, and while doing so, get them to purchase a hot dog and a bottled water at the local gas station. That, friends, is the plan for our future success. …

While we await positive results from all the efforts that are going into developing our tourism business, a troubling trend emerges. Gas prices, some experts fear, are going to curtail vacation plans for many would-be tourists, an issue that may be playing out already.The Forest Service announced recently that some facilities in the Jefferson National Forest are being closed because of poor attendance. …

It’s time – no, it’s long past time – that we changed course. It’s past time that we told our political leaders that the plan they all signed on to is failing us at the very same time the companies they should be doing everything they can to support and defend are failing as well.

We either change course or we pack our bags and head north to find work.

I still remember the stir we created at Virginia Business a decade or so ago when we quoted state tourism director Pat McMahon (may he rest in peace) regarding the promotion of tourism in the far Southwest. He didn’t see much benefit coming from it. The only thing the bikers and hikers spend their money, he said, is bottled water and granola bars. McMahon caught a lot of flack for his honesty.

Southwest Virginia is a beautiful place. I’ve been there, admired it. But there are a lot of beautiful places, many of them more accessible. For inspiration, SW Virginia economic developers should look south to North Carolina, where the mountains are attracting multi-millions of retirement-resort investment.

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12 responses to “Selling Bottles of Water and Granola Bars”

  1. Fifteen years ago I sugggested to my local supervisor that we should start thinking about bike trails in Fauquier, because bike traffic was increasing and someone was going to get killed.

    He sniffed and said, “Bikers don’t spend any money.” Yet now, the county has adopted a strategy for a county wide network of trails. It would have been a lot cheaper fifteen years ago, especially for the cyclists that have been killed since then.

    There are a lot of beautiful places, manyof them more accessible than SW VA. I think that speaks to what you said earlier about properly targeting our conservation resources.

  2. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    There’s money to be made in tourism. There’s money to be made off the Baby Boomer generation in retirement communities or seasonal condos. There has to be money made on niche manufacturing – like quality furniture (not competing against mass produced Chinese furniture). Don’t give up on capitalism for SW Virginia.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    The communities that are growing in SW Virginia (Bedford, Franklin, and Montgomery) also happen to have some of the largest tourism draws in the form of SML and the New River. It’s also not an accident that a good number of the recent economic development announcements for this part of the state have been in those communities.

    This isn’t a zero-sum game. You don’t decide to do tourism OR economic development. They are linked. Tourism attractions and events generate publicity, visibility, income, and amenities that companies like when they look for places to locate. Furhman misses the point about trails entirely. These facilities are built for residents as much as they are built for tourists. People that move to the country like to hike, bike, canoe, and enhoy the outdoors. And people that enjoy the outdoors will move to locations that offer these facilities.

    Check out the growth in Idaho if you don’t believe this theory. Idaho does not incent businesses. And you would be hard pressed to find a place more off the beaten path than Idaho – yet it leads the nation in job creation. Me thinks people are deciding they like the lifestyle amenities out there and are moving there and THEN figuring out how to make a living. Government stays out of the way onthe incentive side but instead tries to build good school systems, recreation amenities, and transportation systems and trusts that good business folks will take care of the rest.

    Perhaps that model would work best in SW Virginia.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 1:05, You make a very good point: The “tourist” attractions are for the benefit of the people who live in SW Virginia as much as those who come there. They also instill local pride. People think, hey, we’ve got some cool stuff, too, this place isn’t at the end of the world.

  5. Will Vehrs Avatar

    As I’ve argued before, and has been somewhat seconded here, trails are more community resources than stand-alone tourist attractions. I think Jerry’s point is that trails are oversold as economic development drivers when they are, at best, an indicator of a commitment to the environment, recreation, and open space preservation. Communities that value those things will attract companies that want to grow roots, not companies that just want to grab incentives.

    If more compelling visions for economic development were presented in his region, I’m sure Jerry would lay off trails.

  6. Bingo, Will.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “look south to North Carolina, where the mountains are attracting multi-millions of retirement-resort investment.”

    this is an interesting statement that I feel touches on something central to the growth issue.

    Do, in fact, new homes… at the end of the day … by themselves generate a net benefit to ANY area.. whether it be Wash Metro… or the rural mountains of Va or NC?

    yes.. they generate…some jobs… initially construction (that go away)..then care and feeding jobs to tend to the rich and famous (and wannabees who can afford a home)….

    If the answer is that new homes generate more money than they consume in infrastructure and services… then I need to be enlightened in a serious way..

    my perspective has always been that they do not.. that the best case is age-restricted homes that do not require schools but even those require roads, fire, rescue, police, water/sewer and medical care facilities.

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, I made my comment after returning from a Labor Day visit with the in-laws in Wilksboro, N.C. Wilksboro was the Martinsville of North Carolina — a former entrepreneurial hotbed that has gone to seed. Lowe’s and Holly Farm both got their start in Wilksboro, Holly Farm was bought out, and Lowe’s has moved to Charlotte. The Wilksboro Motor Speedway (immortalized in the Tom Cruise NASCAR movie) closed down when someone bought the racing rights and moved to another community. And the furniture industry is a shell of its former self.

    What’s a place like Wilksboro to do?

    The big excitement is a large new resort/development being built on the edge of the county. From the version of the story I heard, the developer will be marketing to wealthy retirees Floridians who think that hurricanes have taken the fun out out Florida. Apparently, Florida retirees are the biggest market for moving to the mountains.

    Wilksboro is set on the skirts of North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains, and the landscapes are truly spectacular. But they’re no more beautiful than Virginia’s mountains. I don’t see why we couldn’t attract the same market.

    What kind of jobs would be created? Mostly low-end retail and service jobs. But those would be better than no jobs at all. And they’d probably be less transient than a lot of manufacturing jobs Wilksboro could attract.

    I haven’t thought it through… Just thinking outside the box…

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    “that the best case is age-restricted homes that do not require schools but even those rquire roads, fire, rescue, police, water/sewer and medical care facilities.”

    Most rural homes do not have the option of, nor do they require, county water and sewer. They are on private well and septic. In fact, most large-lot homes do not have county water or sewer either – they are also on private well and septic. Go on, look up fifty houses on 10 or more acres, and see how many are on well and septic – odds are 50 out of 50 have private well water and private septic waste disposal.

    Most rural homes are built on EXISTING roads, not on new ones.

    Retirement homes and country second homes (regardless of age) do not require much in the way of services, nor do they generate commuter traffic, because the people are generally not commuting.

    Rural SW Va does not have much in the way of fire, rescue, and police – cost per person is pretty darn small, although you also have to accept that you do not have the level of service that you see in the city or suburbs.

    Outside of the public med schools (UVA, MCV, etc.), medical care facilities are typically for-profit institutions, not government facilities – Roanoke, for example, does medical care for a wide circle of surrounding rural counties – it’s an industry in Roanoke.

    I daresay a number of those rural counties would be quite happy to get some wealthy retirement growth. I would be hard pressed to see how it couldn’t be a net gain for the county.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I know of no residential housing, age-restricted or otherwise that generates more revenue than it consumes in services but perhaps times are changing.

    Most high-end resort-type communities are NOT large-lot well/septic. They’re often gated communities with houses on 1/2 acre or less. Check it out. If you see a gated community where you can see houses side-by-side.. you can bet it’s probably NOT well/septic.

    But anyhow.. forget that.. because we’re talking JOBS – right?

    Jim said it… mostly low end retail jobs… trade/craft jobs, etc.

    And I would agree.. those jobs better than no jobs for the locals.

    But talk about a cultural “divide”… half the town is well-off geezers and the other half lives their lives taking care of the geezers.. and going home to double-wides. Ick!

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry, provide some numbers that prove your point. Frankly, I believe Ray’s assessment of rural costs and benefits more than yours, because it matches what I see firsthand and in my local county budget.

    I believe that true rural housing, age restricted or frankly otherwise, does generate more revenue that it consumes in services, precisely because, other than schools, it gets essentially no services at all. The only way it becomes a problem is if you start getting disproportionate numbers of families with kids, or if you start getting these bloated super-metro mega cities.

    You aren’t going to build gated communities on the side of a mountain. You aren’t going to build houses on 1/2 acre lots on the side of a mountain. The approach to these is typically large lot development with “scenic vistas” and access to shared amenities.

    These rural southwestern counties are in the mountains.

    I’m at a loss at to what you think is icky, perhaps because my familiy is from that part of the state and I actually have some firsthand experience with it. I see real communities that are bleeding their young people, not “Green Acres” stereotypes.

    These are very affordable counties – counties that typically have inexpensive housing and many people owning land that has been in their families for ages.

    People farming with no second job may only be able to afford a double wide. They can do a lot better if they’re also working in the jobs that are likely to be generated.

    Trade/craft jobs? A good plumber or electrician can make decent money if they get business, and in these counties, with friendly zoning, they often own their own business. Ditto painters, bricklayers, landscapers, roofers, etc.

    Businesses that get generated? They’re not “low end” retail in the sense you’re apparently thinking, because these areas have very few shopping malls, and the malls they have are quite small.

    New housing and new money generates lots and lots of small businesses – white water rafting concessions, hiking supply companies, family-owned restaurants, antique stores, pet groomers, health clubs, you name it.

    You may think owning your own antique store, restaurant, or grooming shop is a low end job that should be despised. I sure don’t.

    A surprising number of the people you work with every day – that went to good schools and make good money and live in big cities – are one or two generations out of these communities – and a number of them would love to have a second home near the old family farm.

    Think they’re not from SW VA b/c they don’t “talk funny”? Think again.

    Start looking at the real world and lose the stereotypes. Maybe you should take a weekend and actually visit SW Va, from Bristol to Blacksburg.

  12. Thank you, I’m glad to know that someone is listening.

    Larry is making the ususal mistake of considering only the county budget. Even if the home a retiree lives in consumes more services that it pays for, it doesn’t count all the other money that person spends, some of which makes its way to the county. His argument is an acounting artifact and a fact of how we choose to collect our taxes. In the end, the bills all get paid by someone who lives in a house. In the end roads all get paid for by people who benefit from roads.

    We couls have more fair ways of paying, but we don’t. That is no reason to use it asa n excuse to make nonsense arguments.

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