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Center for Economic / Community Engagement Helps Mount Rogers Region Boost Outdoor Tourism

The Center for Economic and Community Engagement recently collaborated with a community tourism nonprofit and two planning firms to guide tourism directors, planners, and economic developers in growing outdoor tourism in Southwest Virginia.

The Mount Rogers region — which includes Bland, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, Washington, and Wythe counties as well as the cities of Bristol and Galax — has several well-known attractions, such as Grayson Highlands State Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Hungry Mother State Park. The area, however, is also home to many hidden gems.

The region built a strong foundation by developing hundreds of attractions. The trick was developing a plan that helped communities collaborate to increase awareness and ultimately produce a broader economic impact, according to Elli Travis and Ashley Posthumus, Virginia Tech economic development specialists who led the project.

“When people think of Mount Rogers, they think of hiking to the highest point in Virginia or seeing the wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park,” Travis said. “They’re not going to the smaller, lesser-known towns, such as Troutdale or Independence. We wanted to find a way that all the communities in the Mount Rogers region benefited from tourism.”

Entrepreneur Karen Hester has three stores in the region as well as homes she rents out to tourists. She said the plan will make it easier to develop travel itineraries for her customers. “Tourism is an economic driver for the region, so plans like these are important to help the area grow,” she said.

John Provo, executive director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, said the project is a great example of the ways the center works with communities across the commonwealth to improve their quality of life through the resources of the university. “By building partnerships with community organizations such as Friends of Southwest Virginia and planning firms like Hill Studio in Roanoke, we’re able to provide a comprehensive action plan that not only helps identify the region’s strengths but also provides recommendations on business development, strategic partnerships, and marketing strategies,” he said.

Ross Hammes, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech in 2017, worked on the project for Hill Studio. A former graduate assistant for the center, Hammes proposed several projects aimed at sparking growth for the region, including turning a former brickyard near Exit 54 along Interstate 81 into an adventure park with activities such as paintball and all-terrain vehicle training.

Other suggested projects included zip lines, additional trails, and accessible parking lots and observation decks. And although a timeline for implementation will vary for each locality, some projects are already gaining traction. The Virginia Department of Transportation and Smyth County, for example, have applied for funding to develop the brickyard project.

“We wanted to come up with some unique, exciting activities for the area,” Hammes said. “When you think of outdoor recreation, you typically think of activities like mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, or hiking. But being out in the woods playing paintball, riding a four-wheeler, or zip-lining across a ravine are as outdoors-oriented as anything. They’re just a little different.”

The region also will receive new branding and marketing plans from Arnett Muldrow & Associates, a South Carolina firm that helps communities with planning strategies. “These communities are the gel that holds this entire region together,” partner Aaron Arnett said. “Our goal is to help these individual communities tell their story in context with the entire Mount Rogers experience.”

Idalina Walker, director of partnership and outreach with Friends of Southwest Virginia, said the support comes at the perfect time. “Next steps will include asset inventory training and outreach, signage support, and continued support of the development projects.”

– Rich Mathieson

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