Wise County looking to boost economy through tourism

Stephen Igo • Apr 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

What Wise County needs is a good tour guide. Oh, the title might be more high-falutin’, like executive director of tourism or maybe even fancier, a whopping new convention and visitors bureau czar.

Tourism has emerged in a serious way at the top levels of discussions revolving around economic development and diversification in Wise County, Va., bolstered by a burgeoning grassroots movement that reflects renewed pride by a citizenry in their awesome mountain enclave.

“That’s a heads-up for any county. I’ve asked [Wise County Administrator Glen “Skip” Skinner] and approached the Board of Supervisors that we need a tourism director for Wise County,” said Camp Bethel’s Jeff Rolen, who in February finished up a term as chairman of the regional Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority.

“Dickenson County has a tourism director, and some others are considering that. Wise County is at the point, I think, that even if we can initiate that person part-time to begin with, that would pay for itself in a couple of years, if we can get somebody who can be real aggressive on that.”

The Board of Supervisors in recent years has been enthusiastic about finding ways to incorporate tourism as a major player in the county’s economic future. The board has certainly been listening to folks like Rolen even while listening to each other.

“Tourism is about a $25 million-a-year business in Wise County, and that contributes to all facets of the economy, so we’ve got to figure out what the county’s role should and can be to assist in that and maybe grow that,” Skinner said.

“I think part of the problem is, there’s never been a real good way to quantify the real impact of tourism in Wise County. If we are ever fortunate enough to have an individual in charge of tourism at the county level, that would be the first step to start working with our existing local tourism venues — like the Country Cabin in Norton, or the Southwest Virginia Museum and the ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ Outdoor Drama in Big Stone Gap, or the Jefferson National Forest — to start identifying those opportunities for growth and move us forward.”

Inviting visitors to come play in a natural playground is not so simple for Wise County, given intra-county divisions over a coal surface mining industry and a proposed coal-fired power plant in St. Paul.

But there is a growing recognition that Southwest Virginia in general, and Wise County in particular, contain the potential for a vibrant, vital tourism industry far above what currently exists.

Rolen said regional strides in recent years can’t help but bring the county’s tourism potential to the fore, such as designation of U.S. Route 23 as the “Country Music Highway,” and the meandering Crooked Road “that goes all over the place with all kinds of venues along the way, and a lot of that is music-related, and I think is bringing a lot of attention to our area. Then we’ve got The Wilderness Road from Winchester all the way down to Cumberland Gap, so that connects so very many counties across Virginia and brings a lot of attention to this area.”

A developing Coal Heritage Trail linking coalfield regions of Virginia and West Virginia will also be a player, Rolen said, “with a lot of finger roads through the coal camps. So all four of those items alone bring a lot of traffic to our area. What we need to do is have sufficient training for people in our area how to respond to people coming to our area in a positive way that tells them they are welcome. And when they go back home, they can say they’ve been greeted by the greatest people in the world.”

Rolen said the Virginia Tourism Corp.’s Kitty Barker — the VTC is the state’s tourism agency — and Randy Rose are contributing valuable assistance to the county. Barker, he said, “is over here a lot. She helped us put together our marketing plan for instance, and Randy has been working on the Coal Heritage Trail and has done an excellent job on that.”

VTC honcho Alisa Bailey might be in Richmond, but she is well aware of the potential of Virginia’s westernmost region.

“The tourism potential for Southwest Virginia is at an all-time high,” said the VTC president and chief executive officer.

“Travelers are seeking enriching, authentic cultural destinations and quality outdoor recreation, all of which are Southwest Virginia’s best attributes. Our agency is working to capitalize upon interest in Southwest Virginia and build on the momentum of The Crooked Road and the artisan movement, ’Round the Mountain, to bring more tourism revenue to the region. Tourism development that focuses on the preservation of our environment and culture creates jobs that stay put — they cannot be outsourced — and provide a viable economic impact to the region.”

That impact for last year is still being tabulated, but the VTC reports simmering growth in Wise County’s tourism economy even as the county finds its way toward establishing the industry as one of the top economic engines of the future.

According to VTC data, travel impacts to the county totaled $20.24 million in 2003, $22 million in 2004, $23.6 million in 2005, and $25 million in 2006, a 6.4 percent growth rate over the period. Payroll grew a nudge better from $5 million in 2003 to nearly $5.5 million in 2006, a 2.9 percent growth rate, while employment held pretty much steady at just 336 county tourism jobs in 2003 to 339 in 2006.

Local tourism tax receipts were modest, yet growing, with $311,580 tourism tax dollars in 2003 to $370,149 in 2006, a 5.4 percent growth rate. Statewide, the VTC reports domestic traveler spending was close to $17.7 billion in 2006, up 7.2 percent over the preceding year, accounting for 208,200 jobs with a total payroll of $4.3 billion, a 3.5 percent increase over 2005. Travel spending in Virginia directly generated more than $2.4 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues, a 4.5 percent increase over 2005.

In the May-August 2001 edition of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s journal, Appalachia Magazine, writer Lynda McDaniel reported the region’s potential for ecotourism was largely untapped but beginning to be recognized.

“The Heart of Appalachia region of Virginia comes with first-class credentials for ecotourism. A large portion of it has been designated as a bioreserve through The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, and this area is one of only 40 places worldwide to be named part of the organization’s ‘Last Great Places’ ecosystem protection initiative,” McDaniel wrote.

“The Heart of Appalachia’s natural havens include thousands of acres of the Jefferson National Forest, the 4,500-acre Breaks Interstate Park (which includes the ‘Grand Canyon of the South’) and the 850-acre Natural Tunnel State Park, among others. The Appalachian Trail, the Trans-America Bike Route, and the new Heart of Appalachia Bike Route and Scenic Drive weave their way through the region.”

McDaniel’s observations ring truer than ever in 2008 and for the future, Rolen noted.

“We’ve got some potential here with our scenic beauty and natural resources. Wonderful potential with our history, traditional music, culture and heritage,” he said. “The opportunity is right there. It’s on the threshold. I think we’ve got some good days ahead.”

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