If We Build It: The Tourism Economy in S.W. Virginia
Southwest Virginia turned an unused railroad right of way into a critical part of a regional tourism powerhouse. Jacob Stump, a native of the region, begins a series on how those changes have affected the economy and culture of this Central Appalachian area.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jacob Stump grew up in Southwest Virginia while the region developed some of the infrastructure and businesses that today help generate nearly $1 billion in tourism expenditures. Jacob is from the small mountain community of Konnarock, Virginia, and teaches international studies at DePaul University in Chicago. In this series of articles, Jacob combines his insider knowledge with his academic training to look at the complex impacts of a tourism economy on a rural region. The first article looks at the city of Damascus, Virginia, through which pass both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail. The town hosted its annual “Trail Days” festival earlier this month.
Springtime is the start of Southwest Virginia’s tourist season, which means big business for the small town of Damascus.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation’s 2014 Economic Impact Report showed that Southwest Virginia generated nearly $971 million in tourism expenditures. And, Friends of Southwest Virginia published a 2016 report that showed a 56 percent increase over a decade in tourism expenditures. These numbers are expected to grow in the coming years.
The economic growth clusters mostly near interstates (I-81 and I-77) and cities. The Southwest Virginia counties that recorded the highest travel expenditures in 2014 are Wythe ($137.65 million), Montgomery ($136.33 million), Franklin ($102.42 million), and Washington ($101.5 million), which is the southwestern-most county topping the $100 million mark. The most rural areas benefit the least from the tourist economy.
The regional tourism economy in Southwest Virginia followed more than two decades of decline in manufacturing, farming, and mining. The tourism dollars have created jobs mostly in the sectors of leisure and hospitality.
With approximately 800 residents, the small town of Damascus in Washington County reflects the changed economy in Southwest Virginia.
Between 1980 and 1990, Damascus’ population declined 31 percent. This decline was associated with the 1986 closing of the Mobay-Bayer Chemical Corporation. Mobay-Bayer was the town’s single largest source of jobs. The 1990s saw no population growth, less tax revenue, and continued infrastructural maintenance costs. Damascus fell in debt.
But the town had one lucky investment yet to mature. In 1983, U.S. Representative Rick Boucher went to Congress representing Virginia’s 9th District, which encompasses the entire southwestern region of the state. Boucher supported a group of local outdoor enthusiasts in Washington County who wanted to convert an old, abandoned train line into a trail for cyclists, joggers, hikers, and walkers. Boucher secured $2 million in federal money to renovate the 34 mile-long trail that stretches from the Whitetop Station in the small mountain community of Whitetop to the county seat in Abingdon.
This $2 million investment was transformed into a National Recreation Trail called the Virginia Creeper Trail. The trail opened in 1987. Today, over 250,000 people enjoy the Creeper every year. Washington County and the towns of Damascus and Abingdon are significant beneficiaries of this revenue.
The Creeper Trail passes through picturesque mountain forests, meadows, and small communities, along creeks and rivers, and over numerous trusses some of which span deep gorges.
Damascus Mayor Jack McCrady told me by phone that the town was well positioned for the tourist economy. It sits at the intersection of eight nationally known trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Creeper Trail, the Route 58 scenic byway known as “The Crooked Road,” popular trout fishing streams, and on the edge of the Jefferson National Forest.
The Appalachian Trail has been most important for the town’s “notoriety,” McCrady says. Last year, around 2,700 people “through-hiked” from Maine to Georgia on the AT and thousands more people were “section hikers.” Damascus is a well-known stop along the trail for supplies and equipment, restaurants, lodging and facilities. McCrady says that the town really tries to maintain its nickname, “the friendliest town on the trail.”
Damascus also hosts the annual “Appalachian Trail Days” festival each May. Many hikers plan their journey around that weekend celebration. Trail Days brings together approximately 25,000 people and generates approximately $40,000 in tax revenue.
The Creeper Trail represents one of Damascus’ main sources of income. Other key revenue streams include taxes on property, cigarettes, and accommodations. McCrady says that tourists are buying vacation homes and that other visitors stay at one of more than 20 bed and breakfasts in town. McCrady estimates that the town pulls in $450,000-$500,000 annually from tourists on the Creeper. While it is nationally recognized, the Creeper draws tourists mostly from the tri-state region (Southwest Virginia, Northwest North Carolina, Northeast Tennessee). McCrady says he sees “North Carolina” most frequently on out-of-state car tags.
According to McCrady, the few town eateries were the first businesses to see benefits from the Creeper in the early 1990s. Now, several more restaurants like Mojo’s Café, Off the Beaten Path ice cream shop, The Damascus Brewery, as well as outdoors stores like Mt. Rogers Outfitters and Sun Dog Outfitters service tourists and benefit from their spending.
Other business like the Blue Blaze bicycle shuttle service opened around 1995, McCrady recalls. Gradually, the shuttle service became a driver of tourist activity. Now, seven businesses shuttle tourists and their rented bikes to the point that was the highest train station east of the Rocky Mountains, at Whitetop. Bicyclists then make their way down the Creeper Trail to Damascus, a 2-4 hour journey that can be a leisurely drift or a speedy tear down the mountain.
Damascus is a busy tourist town during spring, fall, and summer. And, because of this tourist economy, McCrady says with an air of pride, by July of this year the town will be debt-free.