The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 7, 2012

Tourism playing a role for Fayette

OAK HILL — Tourism has an important role to play in the economy of Fayette County, says an economist from the University of Tennessee who addressed government, economic development, and tourism officials at a luncheon Thursday.

Dr. Steve Morse, an economist and director of the University of Tennessee Tourism Institute, travels to communities throughout the Southeast talking about what tourism means on a local level.

“I take the numbers and teach local people how to relay them to local officials and talk about tourism’s importance in the local economy,” he said.

Morse presented on three major topics. First, he drew attendees’ attention to figures on tourism spending, jobs, payroll, and taxes, relying on Bureau of Labor Statistics data and a 2010 West Virginia Division of Tourism study prepared by Dean Runyan & Associates.

During his presentation, Morse held up a large check made out to “each county household” for $244, the amount of tax relief he said county residents receive from tourism tax revenues.

“Tourists pick up part of your tax burden if you live in this county,” he said.

Tourism and hospitality, as a sector, ranks third in Fayette County, behind “retail, transportation and utilities” and “education and health services,” according to Bureau of Labor statistics. Manufacturing, professional and business services, and construction follow behind.

Both manufacturing and construction have fallen by about 5 percent in the past 10 years, while the other sectors have remained more or less steady.

The pronouncement that “tourism jobs are sustainable because, unlike some jobs, tourism jobs will never be exported to another country” got a round of applause from the audience.

Morse also argued that “not all tourism jobs are low-skill, low-paying jobs.”

“That’s like saying that everyone who works in a hospital is an orderly,” he said.

Advertising, finance, legal, and management professionals also make up the pool of labor related to tourism.

Finally, Morse stressed the connection between tourism and economic development, flashing a picture of a hiker with the words, “Today’s visitor could be tomorrow’s business investor.”

Tourism, he said, creates a higher quality of life, thereby attracting new businesses.

Morse described efforts by other communities to reach out to the “creative class” of professionals who can work from anywhere with broadband access and said a campaign to get some of them to relocate in Fayette County would “fall right into your plan.”

But the county and the state as a whole may need more broadband infrastructure before that’s a realistic goal. Though Morse called the state’s broadband access “phenomenal,” a Federal Communications Commission report based on June 2011 data ranked West Virginia first in the nation for people without high-speed Internet.

Whether they be technology professionals or arts and culture experts, this new “class” of worker measures quality of life by diverse cultures, natural resources, a sense of community, open space and greenways, and a “local unique flavor,” according to Morse.

Just like tourists, they are looking for music, food, arts, history, agri-tourism, shopping, nature, and other attractions.

A member of the Executive Board of the Great Smokey Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Morse also spoke generally about economic impacts of the Summit Bechtel Reserve.

“I can’t put a number on it because I don’t know how much they will spend locally,” he said.

“A lot of these people will get off the Amtrak ... and go right to the camp and never spend a dollar here. But there’s a lot that will linger here a day before or a day after, and a lot of vendors and contractors are going to spend money in the area.”

Trevor Pate, a junior in Tug Chamberlin’s Parks and Recreation class at Fayette Institute of Technology, said he is excited for the Boy Scout facility to open and hopes to find work there during the summer.

He and his classmates attended Thursday’s presentation as a class field trip.

Pate said he loves to fish, hunt, and be outdoors. He wants to be a park ranger or work for the Division of Natural Resources, and hopes that outdoor recreation will play a “big part” in the county’s future economy.

Thursday’s presentation at the Oak Hill Holiday Lodge was organized by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and the New River Gorge Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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