The Town of St. Paul: Preserving Nature and Culture

In the southwestern corner of Virginia, St. Paul, a former coal and railroad community, is shifting its economy toward outdoor recreation and tourism. A cornerstone of this effort is the Clinch River.  

“The Clinch” is one of North America’s most biodiverse rivers, running past downtown and offering countless outdoor recreation opportunities. Community leaders like Kathy Stewart, St. Paul’s Main Street Manager, are working to balance the promotion of outdoor attractions with careful preservation of assets.  

There’s a mission to improve the Clinch River’s water quality, outdoor access like boat launches, connection to downtown businesses, and other efforts that make it more usable, tourist friendly, and cared for.

Kathy Stewart

Appalachian Ecology

For decades, Kathy and other St. Paul residents have educated and involved community members on river upkeep and care. The Clinch River Valley Institute (CRVI) provides a free “Teach the Clinch” curriculum to K-12 educators in the area. Many folks involved in CRVI are former students of St. Paul’s preeminent environmental educator, Terry Vencil.  

A lifelong St. Paul resident, retired teacher, and “Appalachian ecologist,” Terry first began educating her community about the river in partnership with her students.  

In 1999, a group of kids bounded into my environmental science classroom and said, ‘We want to do something for our town.’

terry vencil

What started as a student-led request has since become Wetlands Estonoa, where Terry empowers St. Paul residents to engage in service-based learning about their wetlands and river. While helping community members be more conscious of the Clinch, Terry is also directing visiting river enthusiasts and environmental researchers to main street businesses during their stay.    

Connecting the Environment and Economy

After exploring and learning about the river, visitors can choose from an array of activities in St. Paul –  many of which were built with the help of ARC funding.  

After the historic Western Front Hotel sat vacant for several years, the town purchased the building with ARC support and revitalized the structure as both a boutique hotel and center for local life.  

The Lyric Theater, another ARC-supported project, is currently being revitalized. Even under renovation, the historic building makes an excellent backdrop, which is why ARC hosted the opening session from our 2021 conference, Appalachia Envisioned: A New Era of Opportunity, on its stage.  

The Lyric Theater is very important to the town. This project will add a lot to St. Paul, not only entertainment, but we’ll also be using it as a multi-use facility for meetings and conferences.

Kathy stewart

Additional attractions in St. Paul include the ARC-supported Spearhead Trails – the area’s first developed ATV trail –  a farmers market, outdoor businesses like Clinch Life Outfitters, and a brewery. By bringing more people to town, both Spearhead and the Clinch are creating opportunities for home-grown entrepreneurs and a budding tourism industry. Furthermore, the residents of St. Paul are equipped to carefully and sustainably leverage their outdoor assets.  

St. Paul is unique because of the location and the beauty here… The mountains, the river…  It’s important to us. We feel like we have a nice little space cut out here.

kathy stewart