The mountains of Southwest Virginia were once known for coal mining, manufacturing and agriculture --- and the boom and bust cycles that go with them. Now the region is looking toward more lasting routes to prosperity. They’re using nature and the local creative culture to nurture their economy.
“You cans start here at the waterfall which is the gorgeous 350 foot waterfall cascading over this mossy limestone cliff and then hike into the natural area.”
Brad Kreps is gazing up at Tank Hollow falls in the town of Cleveland Virginia. Already envisioning the new hiking trails, which will knit these mountain ridges into natural sanctuary for wildlife and people.
“It's beautiful isn’t it? And it’s just a secret, one of the many little treasures you find in Southwest Virginia.”
Kreps is Clinch Valley Program Director of the Nature Conservancy. He’s working with other non-profits and communities to leverage the region’s indigenous assets into a new engine for economic growth; Something to help replace the declining coal sector and shuttered factories with new industries which are impossible to export.
“Southwest Virginia was barely on the radar screen in tourism. We are now, in some cases, leading the state in terms of percentage increase in visitors, increase in local tax dollars, meals and foods tax,” says Jim Baldwin, Executive Director of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District.
“There’s numbers that just came out last month that the number of 25 -40 year olds is growing in our region. That’s a first in a long time.”
Baldwin is referring to an economic development report authored by a group called Friends of Southwest Virginia. Based on state tax and census data, it cites a steep rise in the percentage of the economic growth from local natural and cultural resources here.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the idea that we’re creating economic opportunity while valuing and wanting to protect the assets we have.”
According to the report, a forty year decline in old industries is giving way to a creative economy based on what it calls the region’s authentic, distinctive, and alive assets, including natural beauty and outdoor recreation, traditional arts, crafts and music
The mountains of Southwest Virginia, which divide this region physically and also civically at times, are becoming a unifying front for communities working together to bring new industries based on tourism; there’s the Clinch River Initiative, another called Appalachian Spring. They aim to build on an earlier successful economic development initiative here called the Crooked Road,” which highlights the long tradition of mountain Music here.
“If you want to explain it like the ‘big bang’ for that music was the release of O’Brother Where Art Thou? and it completely captured the hearts and ears of young people,” says Baldwin.
“There’s something really authentic and distinct about Southwest Virginia. So yeah, we have a great chance. You know, we’re at the front end and we can learn from all these other examples,” says Kreps.
And if it’s often been the case that preserving nature and economic development have been at odds, maybe this time, in this place, it will be different.