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Developing tourism industry points to bright future in Southwest Virginia

Wes Bunch • Jan 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

GATE CITY — Officials in Southwest Virginia, and Scott County in particular, can point to a number of accomplishments that made 2008 a good year for its developing tourism industry.

“We have so much to offer travelers here in Southwest Virginia,” U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., told the Times-News in June. “In addition to that, we have a history and culture that is truly unique.

“While we sometimes might take it for granted, it’s of great interest to people from other places who love to travel here, not only for the outdoor experience, but for the history and culture of the area.”

Whether it’s the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, or the planned refurbishment of the Bush Mill, local leaders say opportunities have appeared on the horizon that should let travelers experience the history and mountain culture Boucher mentioned.

One of those came Dec. 10 in the form of an Economic Impact Assessment of the Crooked Road, which has become Virginia’s third-most popular tourist destination since its inception in 2003.

According to the report, more than 268,000 people visited the Crooked Road in 2008, generating roughly $23 million — $13 million directly from major venues, affiliated partners and festivals — for communities in Southwest Virginia.

“This kind of economic activity can’t be outsourced,” project manager Robert Jones said. “This is a homegrown industry.”

County administrator Rufus Hood said the report showed the county government it has something viable to generate more revenue.

“We have the main venue on the Crooked Road,” Hood said. “Carter Fold is by far the biggest venue on it and we need to take advantage of having that here.”

Two other key developments pertained to the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, a driving tour that stretches from Kingsport to the Cumberland Gap on the Kentucky-Virginia border and focuses on the area’s importance to the settlement of the west.

A $280,000 federal grant to design and build permanent exhibits for the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center in Duffield was announced in mid-December. The 15,000-square-foot building, an investment of nearly $4 million, will serve as the main interpretive center for the entire trail.

In June, local, state and federal officials gathered at the Anderson Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park to dedicate an 800-square-foot interpretive center. Permanent exhibits were installed later in the fall.

“It represents bringing a lot of tourists down here to Southwest Virginia,” Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said. “That’s really a plus with a lot of the things we have going on. ... We are fast becoming a tourist attraction in Southwest Virginia.”

Other historical attractions in Scott County received good news as well in 2008. In September, the Southwest Virginia Community Foundation was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission to begin refurbishing the Bush Mill, a historic grist mill near Nickelsville.

SWVCF Director Jay Dixon said he hoped the repaired mill could be combined with other nearby “heritage” sites to form the county’s own driving tour.

Because of these developments, Hood said the Scott County Board of Supervisors have made tourism a focal point for economic growth in the county, even upping it’s advertising budget and building a new tourism Web site.

“The board has really worked to expand their tourism efforts,” he said. “Even though we haven’t named a tourism director we’re laying the groundwork so we can reap the benefits from the tourism industry.”

With the attractions already in place, Hood said the county knows that it must bring in restaurants and hotels to capitalize on the increased traffic.

“We’ve got to get some cash registers along Highway 23,” he said.

Negotiations with those entities are already under way, Hood said, and should be helped out by a recent downtown revitalization grant and new liquor by the drink ordinance in Gate City.

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