By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, WV – Last Wednesday, state officials visited with community members and officials at the former National Guard Armory in Welch to discuss opportunities and ideas for tourism expansion in McDowell County.
Tara Elder, owner of the Ashland Consultant Group, led the meeting and started with everyone introducing themselves and their affiliations.
“I actually came down a couple of months ago,” said Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby. “Your County Commissioners and Sheriff showed me around, wanting to talk about what economic development opportunities were available to grow tourism in the County.”
Ruby had promised to return and said she was here to listen and learn more at last week’s visit.
Other notes of interest Ruby brought to everyone’s attention was the State level push for tourism across the State.
“Just last year, the Governor proposed a budget increase to triple the State Tourism Office’s Advertising Budget,” said Ruby. “It was approved by the Legislature with overwhelming support so we are really ramping up our efforts in the State.”
According to Ruby, traveler spending in West Virginia outpaced the national average growth last year by 58% and across the last two years, traveler spending in-State grew by 9.9%.
“We’re really proud of that after seeing several years of decline,” said Ruby. “We launched a new ad campaign, putting more money into promoting ourselves and its working.”
Ruby also shared County-specific data from 2016 to 2018.
“In 2018, you saw your second year of increases here in the County,” said Ruby. “In 2016, travelers spent 19.5 million in McDowell County. In 2017, that number went up to 20.4. Last year, 21.1 million. I suspect you will see another increase in 2019.”
Ruby said things are heading in a nice direction here but she felt there’s more everyone can do, before explaining ways the Tourism Office could support growth in the area.
The State Tourism Office is in charge of advertising and promotion for the State as well as public relations strategy. Ruby encouraged everyone to communicate with her office to become a part of the strategy.
“If you all are having an event, like a festival, something you want help promoting, please go to wvtourism.com or give our office a call,” said Ruby. “We will put it on our website, we’ll push it on our social media accounts.”
‘The other thing is we do social media promotion every single day of places all across West Virginia. We pick those places based on the information that we have. If there’s a great overlook or a historical site, if there’s something that you want to see promoted, please send it to us. We get that information from folks all across the state who say these are the tourism destinations, these are the must-see places. That’s how we put those posts together,” said Ruby.
The Tourism Office also has an Advertising Assistance Program, covering creation and graphic design at no cost while also offering a dollar for dollar match in advertising spending.
“Last year we were able to bring in about 1.5 million private investment to increase the State’s budget. I don’t think anyone in McDowell County right now is participating in that program,” said Ruby, also stating that they offer photography assistance at no charge as well.
The second area Ruby said the Tourism Office could with is on the development side. She cited the steady growth of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System and the potential for development around its trailheads. Abandoned Mine Land programs are also available, as well as the Tourism Development Act Tax Credit, covering 25 to 35% of investing for attraction enhancement.
“It cannot be made for more than 50% for lodging because we also need to develop other amenities,” said Ruby. “This was put into place to help with development for places like Ashland Resort, cabin parks and other attractions. Those are the two main areas for can help: promotion and economic development assistance. There are some other things, but really I’m here today to learn from you all.”
DNR Director Stephen McDaniel spoke about the challenges and opportunities inside the State Forest and Wildlife Management Areas in McDowell County.
“The DNR has basically three areas, Panther State Forest, Berwind Lake and Anawalt Lake WMA, Panther State Forest being the largest, we have a group camp out there, part of the Governor’s bond projects, part of that is helping us put a new roof and a new cistern down there,” said McDaniel.
The biggest issue McDaniel faces is not the land, but finding someone to manage it.
“I’ve had two Superintendent positions open there for some time,” said McDaniel. “I need an assistant and a head superintendent.”
The positions come with housing and are open to anyone with a 4-year college degree.
Aside from staffing issues, McDaniel felt the potential for Panther State Forest was full of potential, especially for hunting.
“The big thing about Panther State Forest is it’s very, very popular,” said McDaniel. “Y’all probably know that your deer down here in the 4 county area are well known outside the State of West Virginia. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, people are coming here to hunt your big deer.”
McDaniel felt the hunting draw was something that had never been taken advantage of properly.
“Chelsea talks about things to draw people down here, we have an outfitter program in West Virginia. A lot of local folks know how to get up on the mountain and where to hunt. I can tell you there’s people all over the country that would come in for that,” said McDaniel. “People get intimidated driving down here so if you get an outfitter, people will contact you, they’ll find lodging or camp, do different things.”
“Panther was one of the places we went on my tour,” said Ruby. “Stephen and I worked together to get the State Park online reservation system up and running. Panther is not on that and it’s something we talked about during my last visit.”
According to Ruby, the obstacle preventing Panther State Forest from being online is the same issue McDaniel faces, a need for management to run it.
“As soon as he’s able to get that position filled there, we will be adding Panther to that system. People will be able to go online and make reservations, which I think will really help,” said Ruby. “We’ve seen increases from every single park since we put the reservations online.”
The community officials and representatives bounced ideas back and forth for over an hour with the State Representatives Ruby, McDaniel, Senators Sue Cline and Rollan Roberts, Delegate Ed Evans and local officials.
Former Pioneer Bank President Jim Sizemore asked Sue Cline if there had been any progress on changing Panther State Fork to a State Park, but Director McDaniel took the lead on answering.
“There’s a small part of Panther State Forest that is a State Park and that’s the where group camp is. Panther State Forest is very large, 7800 acres and we’re about to add more of that. A very small part of that is a State Park land, the rest is WMAs. Those lands were purchased with federal money,” said McDaniel.
‘Every time you buy hunting and fishing licenses, you buy a firearm, there are taxes that are set aside for the purchase of WMAs. If the State wants to turn those into a State Park, the State has to get the same amount of acreage that I would have to attach to the WMA or put it in the same area.’
That’s the only thing that would prohibit us from making the entire WMA a State Park is those lands were purchased with federal money.
City of Welch Mayor Harold McBride spoke about a new day in McDowell County where communication was restored among County Offices and Municipal Officials.
“My dad always used to say if we need a helping hand, it’s always at the end of your own arm,” said City of Welch Mayor Harold McBride. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and we are going to do this. We are looking at things we can all collaborate on.”
McBride said a key issue to focus on was combating the negative image held not in the minds of visitors, but in the local population.
“We’re no different than any place on Earth, in fact we have a lot more to offer than a lot of places,” said McBride. “The roads are an issue but don’t worry me. When you take off on vacation, does a winding country road bother you? No, you love it. Having a four lane road does not stop them from coming here. Motorcycle riders love these roads. The ATV guys do too. We have all the opportunities in the world, we have to concentrate on rooms, restaurants and housing.”
Commissioner Ruby discussed selling experience-based lodging based on the individual uniqueness of McDowell County, instead of having traditional every day hotels.
DNR support for River access sites along the Tug Fork was confirmed, as well as interest in fishing opportunities along Elkhorn Creek.
The history of coal and teaching visitors to the area about it was also a heavy discussion. Many in attendance felt the need for an exhibition mine of sorts or a micro-processing plant that could teach visitors how coal was used to power a nation.