Could Outdoor Tourism Keep Millennials in Appalachia?

"The problem is that kids are leaving and not coming back."

Outdoor tourism is being developed in the state as part of a three-pronged approach to retaining young people, an approach that also includes music and art. Mario Tama/Getty Images

After coal production peaked and then crashed in the early 1990s, 633 mines closed in Central Appalachia. In addition to the individual loss of quality jobs, the closures meant the loss of the severance tax that companies pay on coal. According to a 2009 report by Mother Jones, these taxes generated “hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenues across the region every year, with tens of millions of dollars being distributed to counties and municipalities.”

As Central Appalachia struggles to fill the void left by coal, southwest Virginia is taking a radical approach: revitalizing its economy by highlighting the natural assets of the area. Historically, natural resources in Appalachia have been mined, but southwest Virginia is trying to re-envision the hills, woods, and mountains of the state for outdoor tourism—and in the process, hold onto its younger residents.

Tyler Hughes, 24, is one of those younger residents: a musician who has lived in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, for his entire life save for a few years away at college. He said that the region’s ties to the coal industry run deep. “To watch something that’s happened generation after generation go to the wayside has been difficult.”

In 1995 in Wise County, Virginia, where Hughes lives, the Westmoreland Coal Company, operating in the county since its merge with Stonega Coke & Coal in 1964, shut its doors and moved its headquarters out-of-state. Today, Wise County has a median annual household income of $37,407 and, as of 2015, a 22.4 percent poverty rate, above the national average. The same 2009 report explains that, like Wise County, “coal-producing counties in Central Appalachia continue to have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the region.”

Hughes said that his own coal miner grandfather never wanted his children or grandchildren to work in the mines because of the danger and the unpredictable, boom-and-bust nature of the work. “As millennials, we were the generation that was pushed to go to college, but when we came back there weren’t jobs for everyone with degrees.”

The region is working toward solving rural youth flight, the result of Appalachia’s now limited job options, by viewing tourism as just one part of diversifying southwest Virginia’s economy rather than the solution itself. The area has increased access to and promotion of existing assets like the Clinch River through small organizations like the Clinch River Valley Initiative (CRVI) while staying away from creating additions that could be found elsewhere. This approach is a multifaceted one specifically anchored in an awareness that natural assets form just one piece of a larger economic puzzle in Appalachia—and this time around, there will be no reliance on a single, silver bullet industry. As Dr. Linda Lobao, a professor of rural sociology who studies the relationship between coal employment and poverty in Appalachia, explained, “tourism jobs tend to be seasonal, low paying, and unstable. Can [tourism jobs] take the place of higher quality employment with health care and all of that? [In these areas] we know that tourism doesn’t compare with mining booms at all.”

Larry Yates, currently the mayor of Haysi, Virginia, worked at a coal company from 1977 until he was laid off in 1993. “It was a fantastic job,” Yates said. “It was one of the best jobs that I could imagine having in terms of payment, benefits, and job quality. They treated us like family in many ways.” Yates, who comes from a family of miners, said that the decline of coal has been culturally difficult as well as financially: “There’s a mindset that ‘I want to do what my family has always done, I want to be a coal miner.’” But that is no longer the option it once was.

Todd Christensen, the recently retired Deputy Director of Community Development for the Virginia Department of Housing as well as the former director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, refers to youth flight as “what the real problem is,” noting that young people “are the people that bring the future to the communities.” “The problem is that kids are leaving and not coming back,” explained Christensen, who has lived in Virginia for 42 years.

Christensen views outdoor recreation as a lifestyle, which, along with high speed internet access and breweries, is necessary for attracting and keeping younger generations in Appalachia. Outdoor tourism is being developed in the state as part of a three-pronged approach to retaining young people, an approach that also includes music and art. Young people are “looking for a place where [they] can have entertainment and do work [remotely] across regional [boundaries] and meet other 25-year-olds,” Christensen said.

Christensen, along with “state, local and regional government officials as well as people from the arts, music, folklore and tourism sectors” started meeting with individual communities in southwest Virginia to help them identify their natural resources. The group developed the Crooked Road music trail in 2003 and, later, the Round the Mountain craft network.

Their approach has been a principled one. “We were to use, enhance, or make more visible existing assets but not to create assets like, you know, waterslides or anything like that,” Christensen said. Jenna Wagner, marketing director of Friends of SWVA, the umbrella nonprofit the group formed, explained: “We promote, preserve, and protect what’s unique to this region, so we haven’t invested in things that can be found in a variety of other locations. The Crooked Road, for example, is based on music that is specific to this region. We’re working to maintain that quality of [resources that are] really unique to the region that you can’t experience anywhere else.”

So far, southwest Virginia is attracting the hoped-for tourists. In a conversation with Rewire, Dr. Peter Hackbert, the director of Entrepreneurship for the Public Good at Berea College, who studied towns across southwest Virginia like Abingdon and Damascus, said: “we saw people coming from out of state, enjoying themselves, and spending money.” Hackbert interviewed 60 international travelers to southwest Virginia, visiting from places like Europe and Australia, where bike touring vacations, along trails like the ones being created in southwest Virginia, are common.

Furthermore, according to an impact report conducted by Friends of SWVA, efforts by southwest Virginia to attract and hold onto younger residents are proving effective with slow but steady change: “[T]he proportion of the SWVA population comprised of those 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher was at 2.3% in 2000 and had increased to 3.04% by 2015. There is also a strong positive correlation between in the increase in travel expenditures and the rise in the young, educated population.”

Hughes cites the benefits that his community has seen as a result of tourism, but also cautions against the downside, including pricing community members out. “We now have a brewery in [the neighboring town of] St. Paul. It’s great that a local business owner is crafting a beer, but when it costs $8, it’s pretty limiting to who can buy it. One of my big arguments is that we’re still a low-income community and it’s important to keep everyone in mind.”

Many of the outdoor initiatives that southwest Virginia has developed are not only free and open to the public—like the Crooked Road’s “jams” and several events within the Virginia Highlands Festival— but come with community benefits as well. In addition to developing 16 access points along the Clinch River to increase outdoor recreation, CRVI also created a free curriculum guide for the river called Teach the Clinch, designed to help educators turn the river into a teaching tool.

Including whole communities in the development of the region is something that has been taken seriously since the beginning. “[One] thing to make clear,” Christensen says, “is that [these outdoor development initiatives have] depended on collaboration for more than 100 people and numerous organizations … The biggest thing is collaboration … It allows us to work with a round table rather than with someone at the head.”