Community leaders in southern West Virginia are hoping to carve out a large piece of the outdoor recreation industry, which already sees more than $880 billion in profit annually in the U.S.
During an economic summit last week, John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at West Virginia University, pointed to outdoor recreation as one of the top priorities communities in southern West Virginia should have for economic development.
Cory Lilly, an outdoor recreation development specialist recently hired by the city of Beckley, attended that summit and said he was pleased that Deskins’ recommendation fell in line with the work he is already doing for the city.
“It’s fantastic to know that the data is backing up what we’re seeing in our city,” he said. “It really shows that we’re on the right track when it comes to creating a healthier, happier community.”
Lilly said he is working on a strategic plan to bring desired outdoor recreation infrastructure to Beckley.
As part of this process, Lilly said the city will be seeking public input as well as assistance from the recently formed WVU Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC).
Danny Twilley, assistant dean for the OEDC, gave a presentation at the economic summit and explained how his office is assisting communities throughout West Virginia in order to help them better utilize the surrounding outdoor assets to improve their economies and enhance quality of life for West Virginians through outdoor recreation.
While he’s happy that the city is headed in the right direction, Lilly said planning and building outdoor recreation infrastructure in Beckley is going to take time.
“Right now, with the national park designation (of the New River Gorge) the city has an unprecedented opportunity for economic development in regard to harnessing and leveraging our outdoor recreation,” Lilly said. “Currently, as it stands, our region has outdoor recreation infrastructure, but our city doesn’t. But we do have a lot of opportunity to grow in that regard.”
Lilly said outdoor infrastructure includes everything from trails and trailheads, rock climbing areas, put-ins and take-outs on a river, designated fishing area, trails for mountain biking, equestrian trails and nature trails.
Lilly said the city is working with the OEDC to not only create some of this outdoor recreation infrastructure, but to do so in a way that complements the outdoor recreation infrastructure already present in neighboring cities and counties.
“We’re not trying to complete, we’re trying to complement,” he said. “So as a national park user makes their way through the (New River Gorge National Park and Preserve), when they come through Beckley, they are going to find their unique experience here that isn’t going to compete and it’s not going to copy someone else.
“We’re working with him to create that and understand how Beckley can have that holistic approach for the region and the state.”
Complementing this effort is a strategic outdoor recreation development plan that Lilly is working on for Beckley.
Like every other industry, Lilly said having a plan is step one.
“One of our greatest challenges is also one of our greatest blessings,” he said. “What I mean by that is, in the New River Gorge region the terrain and our history offer a world class experience for many different types of user groups – mountain bikers, kayakers, rafters, hikers, side-by-sides, equestrian users, fishermen.
“However, you have to have a strategic approach so that there’s not user groups conflicting. You don’t want to have an equestrian trail that’s also being used by ATV users.
“The goal in step one is creating a comprehensive outdoor recreation development plan so that we can implement a strategic approach for the next few years to get these assets in place that creates that world class experience.”
As part of the planning for this, Lilly said an important step is public input, which the community will be able to do early next year, Lilly said.
“Soon we will be having public engagement and input where each user group will be able to voice their opinion and voice their wants and needs so that we can make sure that we encompass that in the plan,” he said.
Lilly said having the community be part of the process is one of the many changes that the outdoor recreation industry is experiencing because it’s no longer just an industry whose main focus is tourism.
“What we’re looking at when it comes to outdoor recreation infrastructure, it is not just a tourism product,” he said. “We’re at the intersection of community development, tourism and business development. It’s gong to create a healthier community ... and a new network, and that really uplifts each other and provides a new platform for people to connect with.”
Lilly said collaborating will also be an important part of making sure the plan is successful.
“Collaboration and partnership are very important for us to be able to create this world class experience that we want to create,” he said.
Lilly said they will not only need to collaborate with other cities and counties but also with private industry and non-profits.
“It’s going to take everyone coming to the table for us to be able to have the greatest impact possible,” he said.
Lilly said planning for outdoor recreation development will continue through winter and spring with the goal of being able to move forward with some of the small projects this coming summer.
Growing the industry
As Beckley continues to move forward on its outdoor recreation plans, a presentation from Twilley at last week’s economic summit served as a real eye-opener to just how much the surrounding area has to offer that isn’t being fully utilized.
According to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, consumers in the U.S. spend $887 billion annually on outdoor recreation. The industry also boasts 7.6 billion American jobs.
Twilley said compared to the natural assets throughout West Virginia, there is a tremendous amount of untapped potential in the outdoor industry.
Twilley said the state needs to get out of thinking about the outdoor industry simply in terms of hospitality, guide services and retail shops and think of it more as a lifestyle that can serve as an attraction to people looking for a better quality of life.
In comparing West Virginia to states like Utah and Colorado, which are both land-locked states with historical natural resource attractions, Twilley said there is nothing those states have in the outdoor industry that West Virginia doesn’t have.
The only difference, as Twilley pointed out, is that Utah and Colorado have been able to capitalize on their outdoor industry in a way that West Virginia has yet to accomplish.
“I don’t want to be Colorado; I don’t want to be Utah … I want to be the best West Virginia possible, but I want to learn from watching what those states have done ... and let’s take the best lessons learned and figure out what worked and then apply that to West Virginia and accelerate faster,” Twilley said.
Twilley said Utah is becoming home to one of the fastest-growing tech industries, but tech jobs are not the prime reason people are relocating to the state.
According to research conducted by Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and Utah Outdoor Partners, 79 percent of tech workers said the number one reason they chose to relocate to Utah was access to outdoor recreation and public lands. It also found that Utah natives in the tech industry, who previously moved away, returned for the same reason.
Second to outdoor recreation access for these individuals was family.
The study also showed that tech companies, in turn, were following the talent of these tech employees to Utah.
“We need to start think about talent as an incentive,” Twilley said. “If the talent is here, that’s where businesses start and where businesses relocate.”
He added that focus on incentives like the outdoor industry has the potential to not only attract new talent but keep some of the “best and brightest West Virginians” from moving away and help to prevent further population loss in the state.
Twilley said there is no reason West Virginia cannot duplicate results of other states because it has so many outdoor assets to draw on.
In the Fayette area alone, Twilley said there are at least 3,000 climbing locations that are between 30 minutes to an hour from Fayetteville.
“That’s just unheard of within this close proximity to a community,” he said.
He added that West Virginia also has the highest density of white water than any other place in the entire country.
“I knew we were good,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time on our rivers here. I did not know we were that good. We have 120 miles of white water, from right where we’re sitting here today. That’s just really unparalleled.”
Twilley also pointed to the abundance of trails that wind through the state that have the potential to attract people of all skill levels whether they’re looking to mountain bike, run or simply go for a hike.
Quoting a study which collected information from roughly 13,000 mountain bikers, Twilley said the median household income for individuals who travel between one to 10 times a year outside their normal area to mountain bike is $111,000.
“Those are the people we don’t just want to visit, but live here,” he said.
However, when asked where they travel when they seek out mountain bike trails, Twilley said West Virginia was not one of the places that was named.
Twilley said changing that answer is part of what the OEDC at WVU, which is roughly two years old, is all about.
“I fundamentally believe with some work and partnerships and collaborations we can do that,” he said.
To help move outdoor recreation plans along throughout the region, Twilley said the OEDC, in partnership with the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, the hosts of the economic summit, have submitted a $500,000 grant proposal for Phase 1 of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge.
If funded, the proposal, known as the Outdoor Recreation Industry and Vibrant Economies Strategies (Outdoor RIVERS), would coordinate a six-state collaboration to further grow the outdoor economy.
Those states include West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee.
Using funds from the grant, the plan is to leverage the assets within the Central Appalachian region’s most rural and coal-impacted communities to advance the growing outdoor industry cluster, a release from the NRGRDA said.
NRGRDA executive director Jina Belcher said the project has the potential to create 45,000 new jobs; retain 150,000 jobs; create 1,000 new businesses; retain 1,000 existing businesses; and encourage capital investments of $500 million in the six-state region.
While these funds would serve as a tremendous boost to West Virginia’s budding outdoor economy, Twilley said success will not happen overnight.
“If you look at most of these other communities or states, it’s been a 20-year process,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind that this is not a singular economic development strategy. As we start looking at advancing the outdoor economy, we need to make sure that we have good housing, make sure that we have good access to our natural resources, make sure that we’re focusing on our education system and health care.
“All of those things matter and it’s just a matter of pulling in the same direction. (The outdoor recreation economy) is a piece to the pie. We are not the pie; we are a piece to a larger strategy.”
For more information on the OEDC go to oedc.wvu.edu.