CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Since launching his campaign for governor, Jim Justice pushed a theme of “bold ideas” to transform West Virginia’s sagging economy.
Two southern West Virginia lawmakers are touting an idea which could be considered along the governor’s line of big, bold thinking.
Delegates Ed Evans (D-McDowell) and Mick Bates (D-Raleigh) introduced a bill that would create a commission to explore creating a lake for southern West Virginia. While several bodies of water already exist in the coalfield counties, Evans and Bates are suggesting a lake spanning 50,000 acres.
“When I say those kinds of numbers, I mean it,” Evans told “West Virginia Outdoors”on Saturday.
“Let’s make it big. Let’s not just worry about the flood control aspect, but let’s see what is possible. If we can do it, man let’s do it and think outside of the box and make it as big as we can.”
In his news release touting the idea, Evans compared what he envisions to Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake with vast amounts of shoreline property for development. Until now, all of the lakes in West Virginia were built for the purpose of flood control or, to a lesser extent, power generation. This would be the first time consideration is given to a water attraction built solely for commercial and recreational development.
“You’ve got the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System and it’s bringing numerous people into West Virginia,” Evans said. “They come to ride the trail, but what do you do after you get off the trail? Right now there are very few activities, but a lake this big could lead to tremendous amounts of economic and recreational development opportunities.”
The bill, called the Southern West Virginia Lake Development Study Act, would pull together a large number of state leaders from the various agencies — the Dept. of Natural Resources, Agriculture, Environmental Protection, land companies, WVU, Marshall — to take a comprehensive look.
The lawmakers envision hotels, marinas, businesses specifically catering to lake users like boat dealerships and repair shops, campgrounds, and resort activities. The idea of private development like time shares or lake-front vacation homes is also part of the equation. Evans’ and Bates’ idea is unique, the biggest lake in West Virginia is Summersville Lake at roughly 2,790 acres. This plan would be 10 times that of Summersville and comparable to famous lakes across the south.
“The topography is mountainous and rugged, but we have to look at what can be,” he said. “Let’s look forward and always have the glass half full. The possibilities I think are unlimited.”
Evans admits there are obstacles. Creating such a lake will drown property, some of it family-owned for generations. There’s the constant fear of a land grab and the majority of the financial gain going to those outside the region, learned from decades of fueling the nation with coal. Then there is the near constant fear and aversion to change.
“It’s wide-open and there’s a lot of land down there,” Evans said. “We have to decide if it can even be done, it may not be (possible), but at least we’re looking at some way to revitalize an area that is stagnant and in some cases even worse than stagnant.”