By Emma Castleberry
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has awarded a $250,000 grant to the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA) for a project called “Planning for Outdoor Recreation Industry, Vibrant Economies, & Regional Strategy,” also known as the Outdoor RIVERS project. The project will feature input from more than 350 partners across West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee to create a plan for utilizing Central Appalachian resources for economic growth. “The Central Appalachian region has long suffered from historical disinvestment, persistent poverty and overreliance on boom/bust extractive industries like coal mining,” says NRGRDA executive director Jina Belcher.
NRGRDA is headquartered in West Virginia and was an organic fit for assuming the lead for project coordination. “As home to the Nation’s newest National Park as well as being the only state fully encompassed in the ARC region, it makes sense for NRGRDA to use these [features] as leverage to lead the Outdoor RIVERS coalition,” says Belcher. The project will cultivate vibrant outdoor communities; create economic opportunity in industries like manufacturing, site development, downtown revitalization, technology and agriculture; and “ensure equitable and fair participation for rural and BIPOC communities across Central Appalachia,” says Belcher.
The ARC is an economic development partnership agency made up of the federal government and 13 state governments. The commission focuses on 423 counties in the Appalachian region. “Acknowledging that the Outdoor Industry cluster spans across multiple industry sectors including textiles, tourism and advanced manufacturing, the ARC saw a direct alignment with the priorities of the [Outdoor RIVERS project],” says Belcher. “The grant award of $250,000 is an integral part of formally developing the Outdoor RIVERS coalition and ensuring compliance and sustainability from all parties participating.”
According to a recent ARC research report, tourism generates more than $4.5 billion in local tax revenue and employs more than 577,000 Appalachians. “At ARC, the goal is to build on that by strengthening Appalachia’s community and economic development potential, by preserving and expanding our tremendous natural resources for outdoor recreation industries,” says ARC federal co-chair Gayle Manchin. “The project will provide a model for multi-state collaboration that future ARC grantees can replicate and adapt for success. Now more than ever, it is time for us to collaborate to take advantage of the growing interest in Appalachia’s culture and outdoor recreation and the commonalities that we all share. We’re hopeful that this type of project will help others in our region pursue impactful diversification opportunities in the outdoor tourism and other industries. Big transformational changes can happen in our communities when we work together for a shared goal.”