West Virginia’s New River Gorge is America’s newest national park, a designation that made major headlines in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Conde Nast Traveler last year. Though excited by the national attention and economic potential, West Virginians have always known this area as an invaluable natural asset. Over the years, ARC has invested a host of initiatives to help communities and entrepreneurs sustainably leverage New River Gorge’s outdoor recreation opportunities. These partnerships have resulted in entrepreneurship and innovation programs, helpful economic feasibility studies, and pathways to engage communities in trail planning.
Investing in Entrepreneurs
In 2018, ARC invested more than $900,000 to the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA) in Beckley, West Virginia to create a network of business accelerator spaces for technical coaching, entrepreneur networking, product development, and more. This network, called the HIVE, also supports new and emerging entrepreneurs and existing small businesses by providing mentorship opportunities. The transformative role of the HIVE is to support, educate, and increase new economically sustainable businesses that will create employment opportunities in the New and Greenbrier River Valleys. The Developing an Entrepreneurial Economy project will yield 15 new businesses, improve 294 existing businesses, and create 225 jobs.
Like nearly every other community and organization, the HIVE’s entrepreneurial progress was seriously threatened by the economic impacts of COVID-19. NRGRDA quickly took action to help New River Gorge businesses by using a $750,000 ARC grant to issue emergency loans. Loan recipients included outdoor recreation entrepreneurs, as well as other businesses, like cafes and restaurants, that tourists would enjoy when visiting the area.
Building Networks and Engaging Communities
Though the park is covered in trails, several other ARC partners have spent years working toward one specific idea – linking hundreds of miles of bike trails into a complete system. This work began in 2016 with West Virginia Connecting Communities, who used ARC POWER support to study the feasibility of connecting 500 miles of bike trails in Fayette and Nicholas Counties and the resulting economic impacts.
In 2017, the Region 4 Planning and Development Council then began the process of planning, mapping, developing a trail maintenance program, and facilitating partnerships with local business incubators and regional development organizations to support business creation and promote tourism in coal-impacted areas experiencing economic transition.
Two years later, the Mountain State Trail Alliance ran with that plan and began to expand the regional trail network concept to five additional counties: Kanawha, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers, and Webster. The project also uses ARC support to engage and educate trail town stakeholders, build capacity for local trail organization, and continue to map trails throughout the region. The Alliance’s trail town work includes vision mapping with local assets, not only finding the possibilities in bike trails, but also identifying opportunities in unused rail corridors. Through their project, The Alliance developed a trail town toolkit for each of the participating counties.
From mapping trails, to helping outdoor businesses – and all local businesses – thrive and grow, ARC partners are helping the New River Gorge assume its rightful place as one the the country’s premier national park destinations.