Highway to heaven (through hell).
If our little West Virginia town is “almost heaven”, the road to get here passes through hell.
Route 93 has always felt treacherous. Its steep grade and hairpin curves demand attentive driving. In winter, fierce winds and blinding snow squalls only multiply the danger. Getting “up the mountain” takes real courage. The hill’s fitting name? Mount Storm.
Once you’ve crested the summit, your surroundings grow even more menacing. The road shoulders up against the fearsome Mount Storm power plant. This hulking complex of smoke stacks and industrial machinery crowds the shore of a sprawling artificial lake. Night and day, the plant belches coal fumes into the air.
Leaving Mount Storm behind, the landscape starts to degrade. The next ten miles are a construction zone for Corridor H, the long-awaited four-lane highway. A wide ribbon of mud, tended by bulldozers and backhoes, makes up the “scenery.”
Before long, things grow still more ghoulish. You’ll pass a “reclaimed” strip mine—an earthen ziggurat, carpeted with grass. Then, a coal tipple appears, along with a sign marking the “Mountain View Mine.” The only mountain in view? The blackened, crusty hole across the highway. It’s an active strip mine, its rim bustling with coal trucks.
Driving onward, you leave behind environmental hell and emerge into a purgatorial quiet. This empty landscape has long since been raked over for coal and left to lick its wounds. These days, the only sign of civilization is a juvenile delinquent center. Like the surrounding land, its troubled teens try to claw their way back to the land of the living.
Finally, blessedly, you reach Davis, West Virginia. This quaint boomtown sits on the edge of Appalachian paradise: state parks, ski resorts, a wildlife refuge, and glorious wilderness. It’s a fantastic place to visit.
But it’s a nightmare to get here. It’s a wonder that anyone dares to drive here from the east, given the hellscape that lies between.
Get on board: the importance of vision-casting for rural development.
Go for it. If you want your town to be groovy and economically viable, you have to figure out what that means for your particular town, be accountable to that vision, and stick with it. … Do something that matters until it starts working.
— Ben Nelson of Mud Ceramics in Thomas, WV. Via Root Cause Wellness.
Nelson’s on to something. To change a community for the better, its residents must share a vision. What do you want your little town to be? If everything goes right, what would your region look like—five, ten or fifty years from now? In the case of Tucker County, WV, Ben dreams of “a community that is built around contributing to solutions and a better future, by building and trying out new ways of understanding and living life, ‘an incubator for cultural innovation.’” That’s an intriguing idea—one that Tucker County should take seriously.
But whatever future you imagine for your hometown, it won’t mean much unless you earn buy-in from others. Competing visions will will tug your town in a dozen different directions.
Again, take Tucker County as an example. Many here argue that our economic future depends on establishing a “destination identity”—a center for recreation and culture, attractive to young professionals and tourists alike. For others, that seems hopelessly idealistic, since extractive industry (i.e. timber and coal) has buttered the region’s bread for over a century. These two viewpoints—these alternative visions—have butt heads for decades now. And so, Tucker County limps along, stuck halfway between the old economy and the new.
So how do you build that consensus? How do you get everyone facing the same direction, rowing together?
First, you must clearly articulate your vision. Talk it up at town council meetings. Spell it out on social media and the web. Draw your transformed town on paper (literally!), so that others can dream with you. Do your homework. Cite concrete examples. Crunch the numbers.
Then, prove it. Build something awesome—like Ben Nelson’s doing with his MUD Ceramics shop. Demonstrate your vision’s viability. Show the skeptics it can be done. If you’re successful, you might just see those doubters hop on board.
“The yuppies are coming! Put out the organic kale!”: how rural businesses can serve both locals and tourists.
You can always tell when it’s ski season at our local Shop ‘N’ Save.
For one thing, the store’s clientele changes, come December. Alongside ten-year-old Subarus and mud-splashed pickup trucks, Mercedes SUVs line the parking lot. Inside the store, the check-out lines are split by apparel: pricey ski jackets on one side, overalls on the other.
The grocery store’s inventory changes during the winter, too. Affluent D.C. suburbanites expect a higher class of ingredient. They’re more likely (than a local resident) to pay handsomely for a carton of organic milk, a six-pack of craft beer, or a hunk of artisan cheese. When tourists are in town, Shop ‘N’ Save stocks these more expensive items. Counterintuitively, even the store’s selection of fruits and veggies improves for the winter. Visit the store after ski season, though, and you’re lucky to find unspoiled produce (let alone organic arugula). I once grabbed a fruit tray, only to notice that the cantaloupe and honeydew sported an unappetizing layer of fuzz.
I don’t resent the supermarket for tweaking its inventory to suit shifting customer demographics. It makes good sense to capitalize on tourists’ discretionary income.
But when you’re serving locals an inferior product, it raises difficult questions. How should you do business in a growing vacation town? As tourism ramps up, you risk pricing out your town’s native residents. If restaurants platter up twenty-dollar, free-range steaks, where will lower-income locals eat? When a day on the slopes tops $100, can underemployed residents still hit the powder? And if every local concert charges for admission, can locals afford to hear the music, too?
Serving two demographics faithfully takes some creativity. Mountain-town businesses must find ways to capitalize on vacationers’ dollars without losing year-round residents’ support.
One potential solution? Charge locals less. For example, one ski resort here offers discounts to locals one day each week. Prove you live nearby, and you score a cheaper lift ticket. But while price cuts appeal to your neighbors, they can backfire, once visiting customers catch wind. Even affluent tourists resent paying more for the same product.
A safer approach? Offer your best deals to repeat customers; you’ll accommodate your neighbors without angering the tourists. Only local residents live close enough to take advantage of long-term discounts. For example, an affordable season-long ski pass makes all the difference for a local powder hound.
Why couldn’t other businesses follow the same model? Mountain restaurants could sell quick-expiring coupon books. That would lower the per-meal cost for loyal customers, without sacrificing the lucrative, one-time diner. Music venues could do the same thing by selling annual concert memberships. Yes, a yearly pass would likely cut into cover charge revenue. But if it packs out the house and establishes an electric, free-spending atmosphere, that trade-off might be worth it.
Mountain-town businesses walk a tricky tightrope; they can’t afford to estrange the visiting big spender or the loyal local. With a little imagination, though, entrepreneurs can establish business models that keep both demographics happy.
A decade ago, there were plans to build a third downhill ski resort in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands. Mount Porte Crayon, the northernmost of the state’s ten tallest peaks, tops out at 4,770 feet, and the proposed resort, “Almost Heaven”, would have boasted a 2,000+ foot vertical drop. That doubles the top-to-bottom skiability of nearby Timberline (the taller of the two existing resorts).
The proposal proved extremely controversial; eventually, property and environmental disputes foiled the developer’s plans. Here’s the most recent information on the web (from a five-year-old blog comment!):
Almost Heaven actually purchased two tracts at the base of the mountain. The three additional tracts needed were not purchased. Two of the landowners would not sell. Almost Heaven will sell the two tracts when favorable land prices return.
Just because “Almost Heaven” was scrapped doesn’t mean another proposal won’t take its place. In fact, West Virginia lawmakers remain keen on expanding the Mountain State’s winter sports industry, for better or worse.
In the meantime, backcountry ski fans still make pilgrimages to Porte Crayon. Its long, long descents and epic snowfall totals make it a powder-hound’s paradise.
Growing recreational capacity: a climbing gym for Tucker County, WV?
In an earlier post, I explained why mountain towns should embrace recreational tourism as a sustainable core industry. More specifically, I argued that Tucker County, West Virginia should nurture its growing reputation as a skiing, mountain-biking, and hiking mecca.
But why stop there? What about other outdoor adventure sports—specifically, climbing? While nearby locales—including Seneca Rocks and the New River Gorge—have attracted the chalk-and-caribiner crew, you don’t see many climbers here in Tucker County.
That seems like a huge opportunity. As sport climbing has grown, climbing gyms have sprung up everywhere. But there are only a handful of West Virginia climbing facilities—two of which are tied to universities. Given Tucker County’s reputation for outdoor adventure, this region seems like a prime location for the next climbing center. In fact, locals have already discussed building an outdoor bouldering park just outside of town.
That’s an exciting prospect! And it’s sure to generate even more interest among the climbing crowd. To capitalize on the attention, some ambitious entrepreneur could establish an all-season indoor climbing gym, right here in Davis/Thomas.
Like the ski resorts, a Tucker County climbing center could cater to both curious visitors and local enthusiasts. On the one hand, it might market itself to the visiting tourists. After all, there’s likely a large overlap between the skier/biker set and the climbing crowd. “What’s that? Your epic bike adventure got snowed out? Wait out the thaw while hanging from our wall.” “Midwinter rain washed away the cross-country trails? Salvage your trip by tackling our bouldering routes.” “Want to kill the hours after the slopes close? We’re open late.”
Single-day tourist packages would be a lucrative sell, but the gym could also offer low-cost memberships to locals. Even better (and again like the ski resorts), the center could attract its staff by offering free passes to its front desk crew and climbing instructors.
What might the climbing center itself look like? The building’s architecture could embrace the “boomtown” aesthetic by imitating the towns’ century-old shops. Imagine a false storefront, behind which a three-story open space would sit. The interior could feature top-roped routes, or just a massive bouldering playground with crash pads. A side room might include more traditional gym equipment—treadmills, ellipticals, etc.—for the less adventurous.
Location would be key; in the right place, the gym would advertise itself. Build it along the main drag in Davis, and every skier and biker who visited Tucker County would pass by. Street-front picture windows could showcase the fun going on inside—particularly at night, when tourists return to town for dinner.
Finally, the building could boast some nice extras. Big, rear-facing windows might highlight the local mountain views and introduce some natural light. A small café could serve smoothies made from Dolly Sods huckleberries. A big-screen TV could show televised sport climbing competitions or climbing film festivals.
Over President’s Day weekend, Tucker County attracted massive crowds. The cross-country ski center set a new visitor record on Saturday—then beat that record on Sunday, running out of rental equipment. Lift lines at both downhill resorts tested tourists’ patience. Local restaurants struggled to keep up with customer demand. In short, the region was pushed to its capacity.
So why not grow that capacity—and the local economy—by making climbing as central to Tucker County’s identity as skiing or biking?
Some residents wondered — as they have for years now — if the land will ever really be clean.
“Our umbilical cords are buried here, our children’s umbilical cords are buried here. It’s like a homing device,” said Tony Hood, 64, who once worked in the mines and is now a Navajo interpreter for the Indian Medical Center in Gallup. “This is our connection to Mother Earth. We were born here. We will come back here eventually.”
Residents still remember seeing livestock drinking from mine runoff, men using mine materials to build their homes and Navajo children playing in contaminated water that ran through the arroyo.
Shameful and heartbreaking story. And one likely to be repeated elsewhere, until regulators force extractive industry to pay mining’s full cost. Again, if you can’t afford to restore the land to its pristine state, then you can’t afford to mine.
The team will test water in the home plumbing systems of 10 private homes: one in each of the nine affected counties, plus an extra home in Kanawha County…. The team… will evaluate West Virginia’s testing threshold of 10 parts per billion of Crude MCHM in water.
The governor’s residential-water-testing project will check a single metro area for a lone toxic chemical, just once. And who’s paying for the tests? State taxpayers, of course.
Here’s a better idea: Check homes in every watershed affected by extractive industry, for all known toxic substances, on a perpetual, ongoing basis. And make the industry itself foot the bill.
Don’t tell me that’s “prohibitively expensive.” That’s the cost of doing business. If the coal industry can’t afford to protect public health, then they can’t afford to mine.
“Quit your job and follow your dream”: good advice for everyone—or just for the rich?
I’ve not once met someone who felt pulled by a tiny, confident voice to quit something, listened to the voice, and then thought the macro event of quitting was a mistake.
—Matt Trinetti, The Escape School.
In his recent post, “Will Quitting My Job Be a Massive Mistake?”, Matt Trinetti urges his readers to take career risks—to quit their jobs and follow their hearts. It’s better to try and fail (a “mistake of ambition”), he reasons, than to look back with regret later (a “mistake of sloth”).
There’s a lot of this sentiment floating around these days, particularly among twenty-somethings who’ve been shut out of traditional “careers”. Quit that junk job and follow your passion, they’re told, before it’s too late. “The train is leaving the station,” Trinetti warns. “It’s best to start moving. Now. Because if we want to, we will eventually catch up.”
But does Trinetti’s encouragement apply to everyone—or just a select few? His list of successful “quitters” reads like an Ivy League alumni newsletter: an IBM consultant, a hedge fund broker, two management gurus, and a law student. It’s fair to say that these aren’t exactly the underemployed, underpaid masses.
This raises the question: is “following your dream” a luxury of the rich? Is corporate malaise the quintessential “first world problem”? Is “pursuing your passion” just another term for “exercising your privilege”?
What about the underprivileged? Can they “quit and spread their wings,” too? What about the single mother, trapped in an clerical position? Or the waiter living on tips? Or the late-night Wal-Mart stocker? Can these people afford to “fail big,” when “failure” means unfed kids, eviction, and humiliation? When there’s no safety net (e.g. generous parents or a comfy nest egg) waiting to catch them when they fall?
On Twitter, Trinetti acknowledged the potential disparity:
What do you think? Can low-income workers follow their dreams, too? Can they hop aboard Trinetti’s vocational fulfillment “train”? Or are they too hobbled to even mount the platform?
The Gatlinburg curse: why Corridor H makes me nervous.
Tucker County has never been easy to reach. A century ago, you could only get here by rattling up the canyons by rail. For decades after that, visiting the region meant battling truck traffic along treacherous, winding two-lanes.
That all changes next year. Sometime in 2015, the West Virginia Division of Highways will finish the four-lane freeway connecting our little town to the wider world.
As the bulldozers rumble closer, locals disagree as to how the region will be affected by “Corridor H” (the road’s designation under the old Appalachian Development Highway System). Some—including highway officials and their contractors—are bullish on the road’s effects. They claim that Corridor H will jumpstart an unprecedented season of economic development. It promises to open up the Potomac Highlands’ beautiful scenery and endless recreation opportunities to the masses. Local property and business owners will profit, as the visitors stream in.
Others are less hopeful. To them, the hundred-million-dollar highway is a massive waste of government resources. The old two-lanes adequately met the needs of the region, and a new road won’t magically flood the region with new money. Drive the already-completed sections of Corridor H, and you’ll see their point. The four-lane highway seems abandoned. You can drive for miles without seeing another car.
As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The highway will change things, but not entirely for the better.
On the one hand, reduced travel time will encourage more D.C. residents to make the trek to the mountains. A single Corridor H section, completed this past autumn, cut fifteen minutes off the drive from the capital. That improved accessibility makes visiting Tucker County more attractive. And when visitors spend their money here, the local economy will grow.
But not all development is good development. What if the highway spurs the local economy in the wrong direction? For example, what if Corridor H bolsters extractive industry, rather than aiding small business? Is it possible that energy companies helped negotiate the highway’s completion, eyeing improved trucking routes for coal and natural gas? Given the state government’s close industry ties, that scenario doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Even barring such a conspiracy, the highway could still harm the region. Expressways have a nasty habit of undermining local character. Sheetz (the ubiquitous Pennsylvania convenience store chain) has already snatched up land near the proposed off-ramp. Can McDonalds be far behind, siphoning customers from our quirky restaurants? Will Starbucks usurp our locally-owned coffee shops?
Like commercial expansion, residential development could also obscure the area’s unique charm. One property owner has already sketched up plans to line the sleepy river with luxury townhouses. Might extreme commuters—those willing to shoulder the two-hour drive to the D.C. metro—erect (faux rustic) McMansions here? What if housing costs skyrocket, and long-time locals get priced out of the property market?
There are precedents for this sort of thing: unchecked development destroying local character. Gatlinburg offers one particularly ugly example. When Great Smoky Mountains National Park opened in 1940, the neighboring hamlet exploded nearly overnight. Today, it’s a gaudy, overlit eyesore, resplendent with tourist-trap “museums” and chain-restaurants. The cash continues to pour in, but poorly-planned “progress” has paved over anything authentic and unique about southern Tennessee.
Will Tucker County become the next Gatlinburg—a machine that converts sightseers’ cash into charmless strip malls and shameless trinket stores? Or can local leaders steer the development in a more positive direction? In the wake of the highway’s completion, can our towns preserve those things that make the region worth visiting? Can government officials enact the regulation that’s needed to guide developers—things like building codes, historic district designations, and zoning laws?
Recreational region: a mountain town economy built on outdoor adventure.
Like many mountain towns, Tucker County, West Virginia (our adopted home) considers itself a recreation mecca. Mountain bikers roll in from all over the East Coast, eager to pedal the region’s technical trails. Hikers make the trek, too; here, they can explore everything from wheelchair-accessible wildlife paths to epic wilderness loops. In winter, powder hounds flock to the area, which boasts two alpine resorts, a cross-country touring center, and miles of snowy backcountry.
Tucker County’s recreational capacity promises to grow in upcoming years. Plans are already underway for a massive science-centric youth camp. Recently, rumors of a bouldering center or a bike terrain park have begun to spread. And it’s not hard to imagine an indoor climbing wall or a fitness center thriving here, too.
Each new recreation resource will help to establish the region’s reputation as a premier outdoor adventure locale. It also legitimizes the claim that Tucker County’s future lies in sustainable industries like tourism—not in the extractive industry that ruled its past and still retains a foothold.
As America’s cities continue to grow, more and more outdoor enthusiasts will get sucked into the suburbs. This stinks for them, but it represents an opportunity for nearby mountain towns. Those recreation-minded suburbanites will want somewhere to escape on the weekends. With effective resource management and some good marketing, even tiny towns (like ours) could transform into major tourist destinations.