By Sarah Richardson
An economic boom is anticipated for the Greenbrier Valley region thanks to a variety of outdoor recreation projects currently in development across the county. The Greenbrier Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted a meeting to discuss these projects and their plans for the region’s outdoor recreation economy earlier this week. Members of the CVB, elected officials, and regional development leaders shared project details and ideas for furthering the Valley’s already extensive slate of outdoor activities.
Andrew Williamson, the Director of Outdoor Community Development with the WVU Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC), was in attendance to give an overview on the importance of developing strong outdoor-recreation based infrastructure in today’s economy.
“There is an economic battle going on right now, and it’s even more important post-Covid. We aren’t competing with each other; West Virginia and Appalachia as a whole are competing with the Rocky Mountain west, the Midwest, the Southeast, and the West Coast. Now more than ever, people are looking for ‘sense of place’ first,” said Williamson.
The Brad and Alys Smith OEDC has a focus on “advancing West Virginia through outdoor recreation,” and aims to replenish the state’s population to the historical numbers it had in years past. “We are not trying to grow the population, but many of our communities have had way more residents,” he explained.
Calling outdoor recreation “a tool for vibrancy, attraction, and retention,” Williamson focused on the importance of developing a diverse range of activities including trails, safe biking locations, family-friendly outdoor environments, and more. He highlighted the importance of community bike parks, stating that parks with something to offer all ages and skills levels are important for inclusivity. “From youth to retirees, and everyone in between,” he said that providing locations for family gatherings helps bolster “a sense of place” and can help improve the overall health of the area.
Williamson also focused specifically on trails and their importance to both outdoor recreation and overall community development. “Trails are a conduit to our public lands,” he said, and explained that the variety of activities that trails open doors to is fundamental to growth. A majority of outdoor activities are directly dependent on trail access, whether it’s a greenway trail, waterway trail, nature trail, motorized trail, etc. “Without trails, you cannot have or grow an outdoor economy.”
Locally, this is apparent with the multi-use function that the Greenbrier River Trail already offers. It provides a location to walk, run, bike, ebike, horseback ride, gain river access for swimming, kayaking, floating, fishing, and more. One trail can be multi-use and enhance a whole region by expanding overall outdoor access.
“What I really love to see are these trails that are connecting communities, connecting states, crossing jurisdictional and political boundaries, which is really great when we can connect our communities and really maximize this,” he said.
Community bike park and trail development underway
Further updates and details were also released for the new bike skills park at White Sulphur Springs. Originally planned to be located at Martin Field, it has been proposed to be relocated to the Hope Village area. Bike park organizers Clay Elkins, Sarah Elkins, and Max Hammer have been working diligently to secure final plans and funding for the park, which is still in initial phases. The WV HubCAP program awarded $12,500 with a $2,500 match from the WV OEDC to design a skills park, and Nature Trails LLC has now completed a plan set and budget estimate. Common components of a bike skills park include a pump track, dirt jumps of various degrees of difficulty, technical rock features, log and wood features, flow trail, and skills areas. The variety of design means there is something for everyone; from children just starting out learning how to bike to those more experienced who are ready for larger jumps and need a controlled environment to practice.
“All we originally said was that we needed a pump track, because we do not have easy trails here,” said Sarah Elkins. “Our kids have to be as crazy as we are, because unless they have learned to mountain bike somewhere else, we don’t have a ‘green’ trail. We throw our kids out on aggressive, hard trails.”
A pump track is a place where bikers can build skills that they can later use on a trail, typically involving bumps and banked turns that help improve balance and maximize momentum.
Sarah explained that after winning a grant, they expanded their vision to include a whole bike skills park. She explained that since the founding of the Greenbrier Valley Hellbenders Youth Mountain Bike Team five years ago, team participation has tripled each year. As a 501(c)3, the Hellbenders secured a $50,000 trail accelerator grant from the International Mountain Biking Association, which was matched with another $50,000 by the OEDC. These funds led to a comprehensive development plan for purpose-built bike trails throughout Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs.
“Just behind the White Sulphur Springs Fish Hatchery, and up there on that ridgeline, you can put in about eight to 10 miles of trails around there, conceptually,” said Clay Elkins. Between the fish hatchery land and an adjacent city parcel, there is ample room to add a variety of outdoor features. He said that on Stonehouse Road where the water plant is, there is space to add bike areas and another river access to provide a short water trip downstream to Caldwell. “Something you can do just after work.” Dorie Miller Park, after the Public Works buildings are eventually removed from the park lands, will also offer space to add bike features and other park items.
“Our next plan is to put it out to bid and start raising money for it,” said Clay, referring to the bike skills park at Hope Village. “These things aren’t cheap, but the return on them is phenomenal.”
Gravel racing coming to White Sulphur
Earlier in the week Clay and Sarah presented their plans to the White Sulphur Springs City Council, who were enthusiastic to support the proposed park. Area lawyer Shawn Romano was also on the agenda, but with his own presentation as he announced a date for a new gravel racing event that will promote bicycling tourism in the Greenbrier Valley.
The Kate’s Mountain Challenge, a gravel bike race with proposed lengths of 22, 30, 50, and 70 miles, will start and end at Big Draft Brewery in downtown White Sulphur Springs. All distances will bike five miles to the top of Kate’s Mountain, with the longer routes then going to Glace, or as far as Crows. Romano cites an anticipated 400 racers attending the race, which will bring an estimated $240,000 economic impact to the Greenbrier Valley if each participant brings their partner or one friend with them to the event.
“Unlike most events in the surrounding area, the ability to start and finish the event in a town with shopping, amenities, and lodging provides an opportunity to attract more racers, more non-riders, and to convince them to ‘make a weekend’ of the event,” cites his proposal. According to a 2019 WVU Extension Service study of the economic impacts of mountain biking and bike trail events and festivals in the Mountain State, the median age of riders is 44, 78% of them have an income above $60,000 per year (with 47% having an income above $100,000), and that half of their biking trips take place within 250 miles of home.
The Kate’s Mountain Challenge is also a part of the West Virginia Gravel Racing Series, a five race cumulative series which includes races throughout the state. Races that are part of this series include: The Lost River Classic, Hardy County; Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob, Pendleton County; Rolling Coal, Shinnston and Harrison County; and Rowlesburg Dirty Double, Preston County. Romano expects several dozen entrants to The Challenge will be racers competing in the entirety of the West Virginia Series.
The Kate’s Mountain Challenge has been set for July 22, 2023.
Meadow River Recreational Corridor Project continues
Matt Ford, who spearheaded the Meadow River Recreational Corridor Project, presented an overview of work done so far on the Meadow River Rail Trail near Rainelle, and details on the Meadow River water trail. “This corridor is ‘between the Gorge and the Greenbrier,’ that’s a tagline if there ever was one,” said Ford. He said that the Meadow River offers both flat water and white water, and goes by Rupert and Rainelle. The Rail Trail and the water trail are side-by-side, much like the Greenbrier River Trail, and passes through Fayette County and Greenbrier County. He explained that this trail project has been ongoing for over a decade, and that the floods of 2016 provided a setback for the construction of the trail. However, recent construction has seen repairs of slips to the trail and vital bridge repairs. There are three phases to the project, with Fayette County funding current construction of the Russellville Bridge.
He noted that parking and access are also a focus for the development of the region, as ease of access is important for both locals and visitors.
A five acre site that was once a landfill for the Rainelle area is also being explored as a site for development. Located beside the river, it could be an ideal site for river access. The DEP has already performed a site inspection, and further testing is planned to evaluate the overall safety of the site.
“The plan is quite literally to turn trash into treasure here, because the property is not being used because of the old landfill use. As long as the environmental piece works out, we will be able to improve the environmental condition here,” Ford explained.
A new collaboration with Greenbrier West High School aims to help kids connect with the area, and hopes to help encourage graduates to stay in the state by giving them an outlet to help improve their town.
Ronceverte anticipates L&R Trail progress
Dan Withrow noted that they are looking at completing the final segment of the L&R Trail, which will connect Lewisburg and Ronceverte. He said that roughly three miles of anticipated trail are being anticipated for the next phase, “and we are really shooting to have that done by next summer.”