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New opportunity fund created to take advantage of New River Gorge National Park momentum

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Secretary of Tourism Chelsea Ruby says the state is in conversation with a developer that could take advantage of the momentum created by the recent designation of the New River Gorge in Fayette County as a national park.

Secretary Chelsea Ruby

Ruby told state lawmakers a visit is scheduled for this week.

“We actually have someone flying in who does run a large attraction in another state. We’re going to talk to them to say,’What would it take? What would you need? What type of sites are you looking for?'”

Ruby talked about the visit to gain support for the creation of a $5 million New River Gorge Opportunity Fund. State lawmakers approved the allocation during last week’s special session. It’s part of the approximately $250 million Gov. Jim Justice asked for to be designated to certain agencies and projects. Lawmakers approved most of the governor’s requests.

Ruby said the opportunity fund will be specific to the New River Gorge area, which was designated as the nation’s 63rd national park last December.

“I’m asking you all for this money so that we can set up a fund to specifically go out to investors to say, ‘West Virginia believes in tourism right now and we’re asking you to come,'” Ruby said.

Tourism is growing in West Virginia, according to Ruby. She said visitation numbers after nearly six months of 2021 are up 20% compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

She admitted she didn’t yet know how the $5 million would be used. She said it could be any of a number of tourism specific needs.

“We want to test this. The time is now. The interest is really high now in this project and we want to bring in some big attractions,” Ruby said.

She said her department will now develop a program.

Ruby said the goal is to get someone who visits the New River Gorge to stay an extra day in Fayetteville or head down to Hinton. Out of state tourists currently spend 2.7 days per visit in the state.

“If they were coming to do two activities, I want them to do three,” Ruby said during a Friday interview on MetroNews “Talkline.”

The state also needs to work on letting visitors know where they can go and what they can do, she said.

“We’ve got to do a better job of connecting sites together and telling people how to find them,” Ruby said.

She believes the new fund sends a message to potential investors.

“It says, ‘Look at us now.’ We’ve got this golden opportunity with this designation and we want to act now,” Ruby said.

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