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Greater Beckley area looking to diversify economy through aviation, tourism (WV News)

11/24/2019

BECKLEY — For some areas of the Mountain State, such as the greater Beckley area and the New River Gorge, the words ‘Wild and Wonderful’ aren’t just a catchphrase, but rather a potential engine for economic revitalization.

Like much of Southern West Virginia, the historic industry that brought in people and development was coal. However, the coal industry took a dive seven years ago. Joseph Brouse is the director of the Beckley-based nonprofit New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, which serves to promote business development in Fayette, Nicholas, Raleigh and Summers counties.

He said the rapid decline of coal created a ripple effect that went beyond mining communities, and sent a message that things needed to change quickly.

“We got this tremendous shock in 2012 that resulted in thousands of jobs lost in the direct mining industry and the jobs that came with that,” he said. “But there’s a deeper part of it, and that’s the coal supply chains, all the businesses related to that. Everyone involved in sales and distribution, those jobs there — which also had good incomes associated with them — much of that was lost.”

This prompted a scramble to diversify, figure out how to retrain displaced miners and find work that could support their families — and to do it in time to prevent them from leaving the area.

“We’re starting to move out of the tail winds of that, but we still have a diversified economy to work on building,” Brouse said, adding that there have been some successes.

“Just recently we worked with the West Virginia Development Office to land a company called Carbon Activated (Corporation). We helped to locate them in Mount Hope, and they do carbon products and that has the potential to create about 80 jobs. Initially, it’s about 50 jobs. It went on the former Georgia-Pacific site, which had a rail spur on it and about 200,000 square feet.”

While still in a tentative state of development, Brouse said the Raleigh County Memorial Airport could also serve as a hub of development, something that was discussed in the strategic plan.

“We don’t want to oversell this, but we have a regional airport here in Beckley and the demand for aviation repair folks is tremendous across the globe,” he said. “We feel like we have the educational partners on the ground, so we’re in the process of constructing a funding proposal that will bring aviation repair training to the area.”

However, West Virginia’s own landscapes also may lend a hand.

Brouse said the region already has the New River Gorge drawing in visitors on a regular basis, along with the opportunities for white water rafting, skiing and rock climbing. Further leveraging this is another priority.

He said the city of Asheville, North Carolina, boosted its economy by taking advantage of the numerous large forests and hills nearby. Drawn to a reliable customer base, Brouse said that city went from having four to 30 outdoor adventure gear manufacturers set up shop there in order to be closer to their customers and activities. It’s his hope that something like this can be replicated in Beckley.

In the meantime, Brouse said site preparation, i.e. ensuring gas, fiber, sewer, water and electric infrastructure, remains the order of the day.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said the greater Beckley area does have a vital role to play in the ongoing drive to diversify the state’s economy away from total dependence on a few resources. One of the factors working in the region’s location is its iconic landscape that draws in visitors from all over.

“West Virginia’s southern highlands are breathtakingly beautiful. The New River Gorge has long been a recognized scenic destination and attracts thousands of visitors each year,” he said, adding that solid transportation to and from means plenty of visitors have access.

“The highway development that links this area to Beckley means that visitors can enjoy Tamarack, the exhibition coal mine, good restaurants and great golf in the Beckley/ Glade Springs region and also take in the wonders of the New River sites. I run into people all over our country who consider a white water raft trip in Fayette County to be one of their most exciting adventures. The Gorge is great, and the potential for growth is amazing.”

Those scenic destinations aren’t enjoyed by West Virginians or surrounding state residents alone. During the summer, tens of thousands of people from around the globe came to southern West Virginia for the 24th World Scout Jamboree held at the Bechtel Summit Reserve, transforming it into one of the state’s largest cities in July. This was the first time the World Jamboree was held in the Mountain State and the first in the United States since the 1960s.

Looking forward to the upcoming 2020 session of the West Virginia Legislature, Brouse said he would like to see lawmakers pay attention to the issue of financial support for business site development. This is crucial given that large commercial entities tend to gravitate toward the community that has a location ready to go.

Business Editor Conor Griffith can be reached by at 304-395-3168 or by email at cgriffith@statejournal.com

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