The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 24, 2013

Fayette County boosts W.Va. tourism industry

OAK HILL — Largely thanks to its rivers and its proximity to the eastern seaboard, Fayette County is seen as a poster child for West Virginia’s tourism economy. But how can citizens ensure that tourism sustains the county for years to come?

The first lesson is that it can’t, at least not by itself.

“Sustainable development is not just about preserving the viewshed. It’s about the balance of everything,” said Judy Radford of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority. “What we’re talking about is how do we develop a system where everyone benefits and we’re not at the extreme of anything.”

Healthy economies require diversity.

For many years, Fayette County was driven by one sector — coal mining.

But the majority of jobs disappeared long ago and now with even more recent layoffs and westwardly shifting coal markets, the perils of a monoeconomy are being felt by Fayette County’s mining families. There’s a lesson to be learned there, says Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender.

“While we’re thankful for the tourism industry, I think we’d be very shortsighted to say our future is all in tourism,” he said.

“We should never be considered the answer for Fayette County, or West Virginia,” says Dave Arnold, co-owner of Adventures on the Gorge resort in Lansing. “Any economy that isn’t diversified is going to be jerked around in all kinds of ways.”

Arnold says that growing economies often have tourism — as well as the art, restaurants and diversity that often go along with it — as a part of them, but it’s not the whole story.

“We do not want to be the answer, but we do want to be part of the solution,” he said.

And while the leisure and hospitality sector creates many jobs in the county, the average pay is among the lowest.

Department of Commerce data from 2011 shows that leisure and hospitality employed 1,530 people here, as opposed to 856 in the mining industry.

But average earnings for miners blew tourism out of the water. Mining industry workers made about $81,306, as opposed to a hospitality worker with the average income of $13,798.

Not everyone sees this as wholly a bad thing. Wender says a lot of the temporary, part-time work associated with the rafting industry gives young people just the kind of summer job opportunities that they want.

County Commissioner Denise Scalph also says the tourism industry has other benefits that cushion the wage gap.

“The tourism industry also opens up an opportunity for entrepreneurship, and our small businesses are the backbone of a lot of our smaller communities,” she said. “It also gives us more exposure to drive more small businesses opening.”

Arnold noted that not all tourism jobs are part time or poor paying and that the industry, at least as he sees it, provides opportunities for advancement.

Nevertheless, he sees the wage issue as another reason to have a diversified economy.

 

When Frasure Creek Mining began expanding its surface mine operations in Fayette County in 2010, it looked like the tourism and extraction industries could run into conflict. Some citizens at the time claimed that the county couldn’t have both.

But so far, surface mining has taken place mostly in areas where tourism hasn’t flourished, postponing any direct clash.

“I think with the MTR project at Page and Kincaid, as it moves toward the Plateau area and gets closer to our tourism area, it will be interesting to see if our tourism industry folks speak up about it,” said Wender. “So far I have not heard them.”

So far, it’s “out of sight and out of mind,” said Arnold, despite the fact that the surface mines are visible from Fayette’s largest retail development.

“If people can see a strip mine from Hawks Nest, then that’s when I think we have a major foul going on,” he said. “But you can’t just say, ‘You can’t do that.’ That’s what they do. ... We can fight whoever it is, or we can work with them. Usually the result is better when you work with them.”

He says he sees a problem only when the extraction industry begins hurting the tourism business and things get “out of balance.”

Both Wender and his fellow commissioner John Lopez lament the leveling of Fayette County’s mountains. But neither says he knows where surface miners could find high-wage employment in the county otherwise.

In environmental terms, Arnold is much more worried about sewage than mining. The rivers drive his business, and dirty water is bad business.

“Keeping our rivers clean concerns me more than coal,” he said. “And I think we’re going to see more growth in the next 20 years, which makes that more acute.”

Some areas of the county are not served by public sewer, and occasionally residents pipe sewage straight into creeks. Crumbling sewage infrastructure and a dearth of public funds for new projects are contributing to the problem in a major way as well.

The New River Clean Water Alliance, a coalition of groups, is working to address the issue, but it will take even further broadening of support from stakeholders to see further progress.

The whitewater industry faces another interesting development, and possibly an opportunity, with the relicensing of the Hawks Nest Hydro project. A coalition of groups has launched a campaign called “Wet the Dries,” which wants to see controlled releases from the Hawks Nest Dam for commercial whitewater recreation.

But WVA Manufacturing, which uses the energy produced at the dam for its smelters, says that releasing more water will threaten the company’s economic viability.

It’s just one more example of a tension between two industries that are both based on natural resources, but that have a very different relationship to them.

 

Some area developers, including Wild Rock West Virginia, Cascade Properties, Boy Scouts of America and the Henry Street project in downtown Fayetteville, have expressed a desire to incorporate sustainable practices into their projects.

Wild Rock even hosted a sustainable development conference last year to drive home the importance of creating an economy that lasts.

Nevertheless, over-development in Fayette County would threaten the very reason that most people visit there in the first place — to get away from hustle and bustle and spend time outdoors. Experts warn that the danger is real and should be watched carefully.

But Radford says there is a way to encourage development so that Fayette is protected.

“It can be a well-developed, guided growth, or everybody who comes does what they want where they want and it becomes a hodgepodge and a traffic jam and all the things people see in Pigeon Forge that make them not want to live there,” she said.

She says Fayette is better positioned than most counties to fight back sprawl because of its comprehensive plan and countywide zoning, which sets limits on where businesses can operate and controls certain aspects like signage.

Tim Richardson, Fayette’s zoning enforcement officer, says the county has a Route 19 Corridor Management Plan to try to manage development where it is most visible. But municipalities also control sections of 19, and their strategies aren’t necessarily consistent with the county’s.

“We want to maintain the vistas, but you need to understand the dynamics of all of it,” says Radford. “You can’t just say no strip malls. If you don’t sell a product where you live, people travel to the next county and buy it there and you have less to maintain your own economy.”

 

Fayette’s rafting numbers have been cut in half in just over a decade, prompting a merger of the whitewater companies.

“You can either cry about it, or you can react,” said Arnold. “The truth of the matter is that tourism, over 50-year periods, is very cyclical and it’s going to have rises and drops.”

If the tourism life cycle lacks reinvestment or reinvention, it tends to degrade.

“You have to constantly reinvent yourself in the world of tourism to be successful,” said Arnold.

His resort and ACE Adventure Center have recently expanded their offerings to include aerial adventure, unique swimming areas, stand-up paddleboarding and many more activities in an effort to build back their numbers.

Remaining fresh will likely be a challenge for a tourism economy in Fayette County in the long term. Arnold says more marketing, especially to diverse audiences, is sorely needed in West Virginia and could help in the future.

“I do think the Boy Scouts have the potential to keep us on the map,” he said. “My worry that we’re no longer the soup du jour and that we’re falling out of the product life cycle — they have the potential to bring us back again.”

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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