It’s mid-April, and the New River flows lazily past the town of Thurmond, West Virginia between ridges marked by the mix of leafless brown and electric green that signals the moment just before nature explodes and rafters return.
Looking down from the Concho Rim high above the river, Haynes Mansfield talks about Thurmond’s history as a coal hub and resort town in the early 20th century. Today, sections of the historic town are part of the National Park Service-managed New River Gorge National River. Mansfield, marketing director for ACE Adventure Resort, describes the location of the resort’s private put-in, on a bend below the town, as well as the put-in for other regional outfitters just above.
On this day, the river looks vacant. But within a few weeks, tourists will start to flow into the West Virginia communities that sit along the river for adventures in whitewater, rock-climbing, mountain-biking and other outdoor pursuits.
“Rafting is still the bulk of our income, but the rafting industry’s been in decline since ’96,” Mansfield said. “For us, it’s all about saying what can you do with 1,500 acres in Appalachia to provide different opportunities for people in the outdoors. It’s kind of like summer camp for adults.”
Along with Adventures on the Gorge, ACE Adventure Resort is one of the two biggest outfitting operations on the New River Gorge. The resort has grown so much since opening in 1987 that it’s running out of space to place visitors. It rents out 52 cabins on site, which range from tiny houses to 1,500-square-foot five-bedroom cabins and — during whitewater season — they’re booked solid.
In 2015, ACE moved to build a 60-room lodge on the Concho Rim, just feet from where Mansfield stands, but was blocked by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection due to a lack of wastewater capacity. As a result, the nearby city of Oak Hill annexed the historic mining community of Minden, as well as ACE. The company then launched a $23.6 million wastewater treatment project that will provide capacity for the lodge, as well as remove a number of open pipes that drain into the New River.
For Oak Hill, the annexation represents more than just an infrastructure project and expansion of territory. It’s an investment in a growing outdoor recreation sector that took root in the rafting rush of the ’80s and ’90s, and now has matured into a core part of the community’s culture.
“I went out last night with some friends who trained here in the gorge with me in 2001,” Mansfield said Monday. “They’re married, still live here. She flies with the Air Force, and he runs the outdoor program at WVU Tech. Another friend is a teacher. None of us ever thought we’d stay here. It just gets in your blood.”
Throughout Appalachia, many communities are considering a similar shift in focus when it comes to economic development. Outdoor recreation has grown substantially over the last few decades, not just as a way to bring visitors but also as a talent magnet. In doing so, advocates of the slippery, sometimes elusive concept of “economic diversification” are trying to change the community narratives in towns that have seen longtime legacy industries decline or even depart.
Each of these communities faces a different combination of assets and challenges, and so the formula varies place to place. Ask around for an example of a place where this has worked, and many people point to Roanoke, Virginia.
Roanoke, which sits in the Great Appalachian Valley at the junction of the Wilderness Road and Great Wagon Road, took off in the 1880s when Norfolk & Western built its headquarters there. The city rose and fell on the railroad’s fortunes through the 1900s, but the last few decades have seen a decline as the railroad shifted its offices to Norfolk and Atlanta, culminating in 2015 when it closed its last administrative offices in town.
By then, however, Roanoke had significantly shifted its model of economic development, pursuing outdoor, tech and science-based initiatives including the Blue Ridge Marathon, the GO Outside Festival, a broadband authority and an extensive partnership between Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech that created a new medical school and research institute. In 2016—one year after Norfolk Southern closed up shop—the Roanoke Valley landed production breweries by Deschutes Brewery and Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits, as well Italian auto-parts manufacturer Eldor. Coming in quick succession, those economic development wins became a rallying point and completed Roanoke’s transformation from a gritty railroad city to a hip mountain beer town.
“We don’t do tourism in the traditional sense, although there is a tourism byproduct,” said Pete Eshelman, director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership, the region’s economic development group. “We’re focused on improving our community for the residents, and then making it that place where people want to be from a worker or talent standpoint. The offset is that’s where people want to go visit. Either way we’ve created a community with vitality, where people want to be.”
Other communities have taken note of how Roanoke and its sister city in North Carolina, Asheville, have used outdoor assets to build an economic development strategy that brings jobs that pay livable wages, not just seasonal service gigs. The approach varies by community, however.
In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, non-profit economic development organization Johnstown Area Regional Industries (JARI) has shifted resources to supporting outdoor-related entrepreneurs, said President and CEO Linda Thomson.
“We believe that this is going to help with this new outdoor mountain town atmosphere,” Thomson said. “Now, when a company looks at our region, say they want to open a recreational business or something that supports that industry, we provide financing and technical assistance. We’re really handholding a lot of small companies today. It’s a deliberate step at being more supportive of homegrown small business and being more tuned in to the service sector.”
‘We’re seeing boomerangs’
The community narrative hasn’t always kept up with that forward movement, however. When the metallurgical coal market spiked several years ago, JARI found itself recruiting workers to fill 1,000 job openings in the mines. Thomson explained that some residents still hope to return to the city’s glory days as a coal-mining, steel-making industrial hub. As a candidate last year, Donald Trump’s pledged to revive both coal and steel as major employers. Such promises won him the support many Appalachian voters.
“We’re seeing people whose fathers worked in the steel mill saying, bring back that economy, and we won’t be satisfied if it doesn’t come back,” Thomson said. “But most people are very excited about living and working here. We’re seeing boomerangs—people who grew up here who are now coming back. There are amazing opportunities for communities like Johnstown to thrive in this new economy.”
Skip Glenn, a professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, believes the election of Donald Trump in November may make those legacy issues more challenging.
“The steel collapse created a generation that felt betrayed,” Glenn said. “I hear that in people’s voices and stories here. With the arrival of Trump in office, they’re expecting coal and the industry to come back and save the region. It’s not going to happen.”
In Fayette County, West Virginia, a handful of surface and underground coal mines still operate, and many cultural indicators still point squarely at the legacy coal industry. King Coal Chevrolet billboards are everywhere, and the remnants of historic mining towns remain in places like Thurmond.
As with Johnstown and Roanoke, however, economic development organizations have shifted their focus. The New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, which serves Fayette, Nicholas, Raleigh and Summers counties, is putting lots of energy into boosting homegrown entrepreneurs. That includes small-scale farmers, as the organization works to build up the local food economy. It also spun off Active Southern West Virginia, a nonprofit that seeks to get more residents active and healthy—with the intended benefit of making the region’s workforce more attractive to prospective employers.
“We’re hoping, as many other rural places have, by focusing on entrepreneurship, those small businesses will happen in a grassroots kind of way,” said Lillian Graning, chief communications officer for the NRGRDA.“
As with Johnstown and Roanoke, changing the conversation and self-image of southern West Virginia is part of the challenge.
“We can be our own worst enemy as far as an inferiority complex, but just in the time I’ve been here the conversation has become more pragmatic and less emotionally charged,” said Graning. “We have been able to get away from the ‘diversification = anti coal’ idea into a larger pie model. We’re not taking anything away from somebody and giving it to somebody else; we’re growing the economy. We’re diversifying and building more businesses.”
But while the conversation is shifting, other challenges remain and the new administration may be adding some new ones. Trump’s so-called “lean budget” severely cuts federal programs that aid in regional economic development, slashing Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s infrastructure budget, all of which provide key funding for programs and infrastructure. Congressional leaders have said they’ll preserve these programs, but even partial cuts could set back economic development efforts in Appalachia.
Then there are the challenges inherent to Appalachia’s climate. The outdoor economy still operates largely on a seasonal basis. In the New River Gorge, rafting season runs from April through October, with mountain biking and rock climbing providing a buffer “shoulder season” on each end. The outdoor industry provides mostly service jobs and full-timers often work as guides during the rafting season, then head to ski towns during the winter months.
Kenny Parker, co-owner of Fayetteville retailer Waterstone Outdoors, said his business has grown slowly but steadily since it was founded in the mid-’90s. He’s seen the rise of a local outdoors culture that plays in the gorge but flocks to local restaurants afterward. Parker sees more potential, but also missed opportunities, such as a friend in computer programming who moved to Fayetteville for several years ago but recently left.
Adventure as the fabric of community
Kelly Jo Drey, who works in county offices practically next door to Waterstone, is among those trying to make a difference. Drey is the Fayette County resource coordinator, but also is training to become a guide for Adventures on the Gorge this season. She’s developing a proposal to turn an 84-acre property into a farm incubator, as well as considering how to revitalize empty downtown storefronts in Mount Hope, a nearby city hit hard by floods in 2010 that’s also the target of an Active Southern West Virginia trail project. Drey also oversees Wolf Creek Park, a 1,000-acre county industrial park that was launched in 2006 as a live/work/play/learn mixed-use development.
“We thought to market to the outdoor industry to see if manufacturing might occur here,” said Gene Kistler, who sits on Wolf Creek’s board and also co-founded Waterstone Outdoors with Parker. “The idea was we’ve got this great place, with the outdoors at your fingertips, and technology allows you to work from anywhere.”
The park’s momentum was damaged by the recession of 2008 that ravaged the global economy, but the property still remains the county’s focal point for leveraging its outdoor assets into well-paying jobs. As of April, it’s home to craft brewery Bridge Brew Works, tunneling equipment maker Robbins Company, the county’s E-911 center, a WVDEP office and several single-family homes.
Drey walks along a series of boardwalks across a wetland at the park, describing how the structure was envisioned as a place for children to learn and residents to meditate, bird watch or just take a few minutes out of their day. As if on cue, a pair of red-breasted mergansers flush from the underbrush and take to the sky.
Drey believes draw of the gorge and other assets goes well beyond tourists: Outdoors culture is baked into the community.
“Certainly there are plenty of tourists that come here to spend time in the gorge and sample what we have to offer, but there are also a lot of people who come and live here year-round,” Drey said. “There are a lot of adventure athletes who make their lives here. That adventurous spirit is an important part of the fabric of the community.”
Further into the park, however, the long-term vision for Wolf Creek runs into reality, as the road abruptly ends at a graded 6-acre pad that sits vacant. There’s more land to be cleared and graded in the 1,000-acre park, but the county has been using the sale of sites to fund road building, so it’s got to sell that cleared pad to obtain the funding for the next phase.
In a way, this spot works as metaphor for the outdoors industry in many Appalachian communities. The region’s path forward leads to wildlands and some feeling of the unknown. But with investment, hard work and some good luck, perhaps those outdoors assets can be leveraged into jobs.
A native of the Alleghany Highlands, Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms) has worked as a journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains since 2001. He lives with his family plus dogs, cats, chickens and dairy goats in Floyd County, Virginia.