Blazing new trails

The Crooked Road offers a model for promoting a scenic region

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Print this page by Tim Thornton

Ever since Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road 235 years ago from Fort Chiswell in Wythe County through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, Southwest Virginians have associated better transportation with a better economy.
Over the years they have relied on railroads and interstate highways to stimulate business in a sprawling, mountainous region that is closer to the capitals of five other states (Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio) than it is to Richmond.

The latest big road project, the Coalfields Expressway, has been on the drawing board for more than a decade. It would stretch 51 miles across the tops of strip-mined ridges through Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan counties. But at a price tag of $2 billion, it’s unclear when and from where the road funding will come. “There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ right now,” says Coalfields Expressway project manager Jeff Powell. His staff has been cut from eight people to three. “We’re just trying to live, like everybody else.”

For now, the region is betting on a different kind of road to draw tourists to the region. Many organizations are promoting hiking trails and auto routes that explore the scenic region’s parks, forests and Appalachian culture.

In some ways, this isn’t such a new idea. The Blue Ridge Parkway is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and backpackers have been hiking the Appalachian Trail through Southwest Virginia for decades. In the mid-1980s, part of the route of the old Virginia Carolina Railroad became the Virginia Creeper Trail turning Damascus into “Trail City, USA.”

But something dramatic happened a few years back when the General Assembly designated a series of roadways as The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail. The auto route, which has been extended over the years, now runs from Rocky Mount in Franklin County to Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia-Kentucky state line. The 300-mile route highlights traditional music and musicians, from amateurs who play every week at the Stringbean Coffee Shop in Galax to Bluegrass Hall of Fame legend Ralph Stanley, a Dickenson County resident.

No road, crooked or otherwise, actually was built. The project involved putting up highway markers, designating some music spots as Crooked Road venues and investing in marketing. Stories about the trail began to appear on television and in major newspapers. The result was 264,000 visitors and an annual economic impact of $23 million, according to a December 2008 report.

The success of The Crooked Road has prompted plans for similar promotional projects in the region. “We’re trying to do for craft and agri-tourism what the Crooked Road did for bluegrass and old-time music,” says Diana Blackburn, executive director of ‘Round the Mountain, a regional artisan network. Inspired by cultural trails begun in North Carolina more than a decade ago, ‘Round the Mountain aims to have 15 driving trails organized by this fall.

Likewise, the Spearhead Trails Initiative proposes creating a network of multi-use trails across seven counties and the city of Norton by 2012. At least three of those counties already have seen results from the Crooked Road.

With the variety of trails promoting crafts, music and sightseeing, tourists might get confused about exactly what kind of place they’re visiting. The Southwest Virginia Heritage Commission plans to alleviate any confusion by acting as an umbrella organization for all the trails and stimulating discussions on coordination and branding.

The commission also will operate Heartwood, a 29,000-square-foot collection of galleries and performance spaces scheduled to open in Abingdon next summer. “Heartwood really works to push people into the region, to give a sampling of what the region has to offer,” Blackburn says.

Still, Southwest Virginia isn’t putting all its economic eggs in one backpack. In Wise County, deep in the coalfields, the unemployment rate in May was 7.5 percent, nearly two percentage points lower than the national rate. “The big story in Wise County now continues to be the construction of the Dominion [Resources’] hybrid energy plant in the eastern end of the county, over near St. Paul,” says Carl Snodgrass, the county’s economic development director.

The 585-megawatt, coal-fired plant is scheduled to begin operations in 2012. Right now it’s employing roughly 1,800 construction workers, about a third of them local, Snodgrass says. When the plant is up and running, it will employ 75 people and create another 350 jobs for people mining and transporting the coal it will burn.

“Coal is pretty much in demand these days,” Snodgrass says. One coal producer recently told him that all his reserves are committed through 2010. “They have fairly lucrative contracts extending on out to 2011 and 2012.”

Higher-education also is playing an important role in the region’s economy. Wise County is home to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise (once known as Clinch Valley College) and Mountain Empire Community College. In nearby Russell County, U.Va.-Wise runs the Southwest Virginia Technology Development Center. Along with Southwest Virginia Community College, U.Va.-Wise offers what Shannon Blevins, the university’s director of economic development, calls “a nice balance between soft-skill program development as well as hard-core technical skills.”

Before the center set up any programs, Blevins asked employers what they needed. Using that information, the center began offering training for workers and managers, including leadership certificate programs taught by professors from U.Va.’s Darden School of Business. “It is my personal goal to have as many of those certificates hanging on the walls of our professionals in Southwest Virginia as I can get,” Blevins says.

Another higher-education institution, Bristol, Tenn.-based King College, is pursuing plans to create a medical school in Southwest Virginia. Virginia’s Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission pledged $25 million for the project, provided King matches the grant and builds north of the state line. The college says the medical school, which hopes to accept its first class in 2012, could create 536 jobs and have an economic impact of $74.4 million by 2016.

Bristol, Va., meanwhile soon will be the home of Alpha Natural Resources, the nation’s third largest coal company, which is moving its headquarters from Abingdon. “That’s going to add about 250 to 300 people,” says Jerry Brown, executive director of the city’s economic development committee.  “Pretty well-paid people.”

But Brown says that hunting for new companies isn’t his highest priority. “We think it’s very important to keep what we got,” he says. “That’s what we try to do first of all. Then we do an outreach marketing program that complements those things we’ve already got.”

One of the things that the Bristol area already has its legacy as “The Birthplace of Country Music.” Recording sessions in 1927 introduced the world to the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Festivals and concert series tied to that heritage bring thousands of visitors to the city.

Brown also promotes a variety of nearby amenities that contribute to “the general quality of life” in the region. The list includes the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, the state theater of Virginia. The theater, which began staging plays 77 years ago during the Great Depression, takes its name from the fact that early patrons bartered food goods for tickets. Actors who started their careers at the theater include Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty and Kevin Spacey.

Brown says no one thing determines the character of a city or a region. “It’s not manufacturing. It’s not retail. It’s not tourism. It’s not cultural. It’s all the above. And if you don’t have all of those ingredients, you’re not going to grow,” he says. 

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