Southwest Va. builds outdoor rec centers
Southwest Virginia has two new centers welcoming outdoor adventurists and another on the way.
With a grand opening set for August, the $1.5 million Back of the Dragon Welcome Center opened in Tazewell in May 2020. In Coeburn, Spearhead Trails opened a 22,000-square-foot activity center in its renovated Coeburn headquarters last year. And the $2.67 million Three Rivers Destination-Discovery Center should open in St. Paul in 2025.
Outdoor adventures are part of the region’s transition from a coal-based economy — and “outdoor adventure” is an expansive term.
“Our biggest draw is motor sports,” explains David Woodard, the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority’s executive director.
More than a decade ago, retired veteran Larry Davidson enjoyed riding his motorcycle through the 438 curves and 3,500 feet of elevation change on the 32-mile stretch of Virginia Route 16 between Marion and Tazewell. Davidson dubbed it the Back of the Dragon and persuaded local tourism folks to promote it. According to the Virginia Tourism Corp., tourism brought more than $36 million to Tazewell County in 2019.
Appalachian Back Roads, a collection of 14 routes for riding and driving enthusiasts, grew from that concept. “We jumped on their coattails,” Woodard says.
“It’s not unusual to roll into Big Stone Gap or Tazewell or St. Paul or Pennington Gap and find a car club of Porsches or Maseratis or — I mean, just pick one, even Beetle bugs,” Woodard says.
The original Back of the Dragon welcome center was a doublewide trailer. Now it’s a 5,000-square-foot building featuring self-serve ice cream, self-serve beer and a coffee shop.
Spearhead Trails has more than 600 miles of off-road vehicle trails, equestrian, biking and hiking trails, nine river access points and a shooting and archery range. The center features a climbing wall and axe-throwing lanes. They’re working on adding cornhole, basketball and archery. The Virginia Beach-based Institute for Service Research estimates the headquarters alone will add $637,000 to the local economy annually.
The money is significant for the localities, but to Woodard, the new tourism industry’s biggest impact is that it allows families who have lived in the area for generations to stay.
“That means a whole lot when somebody’s kids don’t have to leave to find work,” he says. “If they can start a business and they can make a decent, good living out of it, that’s a big deal.”