Tourism won’t replace King Coal, but it doesn’t hurt

WHITESVILLE, W.Va. — Southern West Virginia continues to find its way forward as the prospects of the coal industry continue to languish. Whether coal rebounds from its downturn since 2008 remains to be seen, but regardless of coal’s fate even the most cynical agree diversification of the region’s economy is long overdue.  Tourism is one of the branches some are trying hard to sprout.

An “app” guided tour of the Paint Creek watershed was unveiled earlier this week.  You can read about it here. Residents who live along Paint Creek from Tamarack to East Bank narrate the tour with stories of the various sites along the way.  Users can drive the road and through the miracle of GPS technology, a narrator will just start talking as soon as you hit a waypoint on the trip.  It’s an interesting concept, and hopefully one that can overcome the lack of adequate cell service in much of the region.

The Hatfield-McCoy Trail continues to grow in stature nationally as a destination for off road enthusiasts.  The trail most recently reclaimed a segment of the off roading public when they retrofitted the Bear Wallow trail system in Logan County for full-sized four wheel drive vehicles. The system suffered a setback last year when a lease agreement on the Ivy Branch trail ran out and the landowner didn’t want to renew.  Previously that was the only option for those wanting to take their full sized machines on the trail. Hatfield-McCoy officials tell me while they continue to see growth, most of it is from out of state. A disproportionate few of the riders on the trail are from West Virginia.

The DNR continues its work to develop an elk herd in the coalfield counties.  About the only remaining hurdle is to find the elk and go get them. I’m told there are constant discussions about how and where to get them.  My sources say you can probably expect the first elk to be on the ground in West Virginia by year’s end. The elk will be an attraction as their numbers multiply. The state of Kentucky has seen a boom from elk hunting, but almost as much interest and tourism development for those just wanting to see an elk.

The community of Whitesville this week hopes to attract visitors with a trout rodeo on the Coal River.  The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial Group is sponsoring the event which will run for five days.   The organization stocked 500 pounds of rainbow trout in the river in the Whitesville area.  Several of those fish have been specially tagged for some nice prizes.

Organizers indicated more than 100 anglers had already signed up to be part of the event which will run from 9 a.m. Thursday through 6 p.m. Monday. Participants wishing to be entered into the tagging prize pool can register at WSB Insurance in Whitesville, Whitesville City Hall, and Coal Heritage Riverwalk Park in Whitesville on Thursday from 8 a.m. to noon.  Registration is $20.  Funding for the purchase of the trout was provided by a mini-grant from the West Virginia Community Development Hub through the Turn This Town Around- Whitesville initiative.

Although a fun idea, the Coal River is too warm to support trout for any great length of time during the spring.  However, there are other fish in the river.  Fishing on the Coal is improving thanks to constant efforts to clean up the waterway and improve water quality.  The Coal River Group has done tremendous work to remove trash and help shepherd grant programs to fund modern sewage treatment plants along the waterway. The group has also shined the spotlight on paddling the river via kayak and canoe. The efforts are starting to attract a number of out-of-town guests looking for a new waterway to explore. The interest has led to upstart canoe rental businesses and shows great promise in the future.

It’s unlikely coal will ever be the dominant force in the region it once was, therefore new opportunities need to be discovered.  The work now developing should have started 40 years ago, but it’s better late than never.  People from outside the region are finally being invited into the southern coalfields to discover the beautiful scenery, the rugged majesty of those steep hills, and the recreational opportunities of a land which for decades was largely bypassed and overlooked.  For years travelers headed to a vacation destination elsewhere by passing through this region on the W.Va. Turnpike.  Hopefully the new efforts will encourage them to stop and spend a day or two here along with some of those much needed dollars originally headed to South Carolina and beyond.

Don’t misunderstand, I hope the coal jobs return, but there’s no rule which says we can’t have it both ways.  For too long there has been a prevailing attitude southern West Virginia wouldn’t be attractive to outsiders as a recreation destination.  Thankfully, some are starting to see that as short sighted thinking and minds are changing.  Thoughts and considerations are moving in a different direction. Hopefully the ideas catch on and start to spread because there’s a lot of untapped potential.