FAIRMONT — Trails and waterways in North Central West Virginia will be getting some new attention with help from a $1.1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Kingwood-based Friends of the Cheat received the ARC grant on behalf of the newly-formed Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority, which will serve Barbour, Doddridge, Grant, Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Mineral, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Ritchie, Taylor, Tucker, Upshur and Wood counties. The goal of the Authority is to formally launch the Mountaineer Trail Network as a collection of non-motorized trails for running, walking biking, kayaking and canoeing.
Authority member Leisha Elliott, executive director of the Marion County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the organization was just launched and is still in the planning stages. Elliott and Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission Executive Director Tony Mihalski were appointed to the Authority by the Marion County Commission.
“Ultimately, we want our rails and trails and waterways to be a destination — resources that are also enjoyed by our residents — that serve as a quality of life issue for families and enthusiasts,” Elliott said. “The new funding will be used to enhance our land and water trails. It’s a pretty exciting time.”
Established as an economic development authority by the 2019 West Virginia Legislature, the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority will oversee the creation, launch and operation of the Mountaineer Trail Network.
Elliott said preliminary plans call for using the Hatfield-McCoy Trail in the southern part of West Virginia as a model for success.
“From what we’ve seen in the southern part of the state are a number of small businesses startup and thrive in connection with the recreational tourism generated by the Hatfield-McCoy Trail,” Elliott said. “We want everyone to be able to enjoy being outside and enjoy all that West Virginia has to offer.”
Over the next three years, the Authority will select four to eight existing, trail areas in northern West Virginia for inclusion in the Mountaineer Trail Network.
“While this is all new, some of things the Authority may look at would include trail enhancements, updating the trial systems or installing new kayak and canoe launches. Maybe enhanced sidewalks,” Elliott said. “It will definitely be an economic driver for the area.”
The $1.1 million award is part of a $46.4 million package that will support 57 projects in 184 coal-impacted counties through ARC’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, Initiative. POWER targets federal resources to communities affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations and coal-related supply chain industries.
“Everyone’s talking about transformative economies in West Virginia now with coal in decline … and everybody’s pointing toward tourism,” Friends of the Cheat Associate Director Owen Mulkeen said.
Mulkeen said the state enabling legislation establishing the Authority allows establishing partnerships with private landowners in the same manner that is being down with the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
“Right now, there’s not a cohesive branded network [of trails in NCWV] that allows people to get that outside of WV tourism,” Mulkeen said. “This way, we can do it collectively rather than each county doing their own separate thing.”
POWER funds will be used to enhance and market the trail areas and nearby tourism businesses as a nationally- and world-renowned tourism destination for biking and boating.
“The downturn of the coal industry has impacted economies across Appalachia. That’s why ARC’s POWER initiative helps to leverage regional partnerships and collaborations to support efforts to create a more vibrant economic future for coal-impacted communities,” ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin said in a press release. “Many of the projects we announced today will invest in educating and training the Appalachian workforce, nurturing entrepreneurship, and supporting infrastructure — including broadband access. These investments in our Appalachian coal-impacted communities are critical in leveling the economic playing field so our communities can thrive.”
“This project will provide the marketing, organization, and tourism-focused business development needed to leverage these trails as the world-class assets they truly are,” said Friends of the Cheat Executive Director Amanda Pitzer. “This in turn will directly fuel opportunities for new business startups in tourism, lodging, dining, and other related sectors.”
Friends of the Cheat is a nonprofit group that works to restore the Cheat River, which has been damaged by years of mining, along with preserving it for future generations.
The Appalachian Regional Commission is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments that focuses on 420 counties across the Appalachian Region.