There’s a national storyline that’s told about parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. It goes something like this: As the steel and coal industries fade, small towns are dying out. Young people move away because there’s a lack of jobs.
But for the past 20 years, some entrepreneurs have quietly been working on a different narrative -- one that harnesses the region’s natural beauty to build the economy. Their slow climb is starting to bear real fruit.
About 10 years ago, after a long career in computer sales, Rod Darby was downsized, and out of work.
“And I got angry about that, so I thought, ‘I’m never going to work for someone else again, so I’m going to start my own business.”
As he researched what that business would be, he started noticing a lot of activity around the Great Allegheny Passage -- a 150-mile bike trail along an old rail line, connecting Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. Construction was still in progress then, but it’s since been completed. Darby wrote up a business plan to open a bar and restaurant along the trail, in West Newton, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. He shopped the idea around.
“I went to a large bank, they said, ‘Nope, that’s not what we do. I went to a medium sized bank, ‘Hey, great plan, that’s not what we do.’ Went to a small bank, ‘Great plan, we’re not sure about this trail.’
Then he went to a community development program called the Progress Fund.
“They said, ‘This is exactly what we do.’ And they’ve been a fantastic partner for me, since we started.”
Progress Fund co-founder David Kahley, saw a need to support tourism in the region 20 years ago.
“So, we started basically a non-profit bank, and making loans to small businesses,” he said.
They initially invested in nearby Ohiopyle, financing a whitewater rafting facility, a bed and breakfast and other tourism projects. Today, it’s bustling with cyclists, hikers and rafters spending money to eat, shop and stay overnight.
Kahley wanted to try something similar in West Newton, which is only a 34-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh. Then Rod Darby walked in the door.
“Rod became one of the first people outside of Ohiopyle to start investing in the other little towns. So, when he approached and said, ‘I want to do something here,’ we were jumping for joy.”
Today, Darby’s Trailside Restaurant serves pub food, boasts a full bar and a takeout beer shop. Twenty-eight people work here, 16 of them full time. And Darby said business is hopping.
“And people ask me, ‘Does the trail help you out?’, and I’m like, ‘The trail is the reason I’m here.’ ”
The Progress Fund’s David Kahley walks just a few feet from the restaurant, on to that bike trail that runs along the river.
Kahley said the Progress Fund invested in pizza and fast food restaurants near the trail, a canoe and kayak livery, and the renovation of a bed and breakfast -- nearly $2.5 million in total.
“We have nine loans that we’ve done in West Newton, and it’s really, that kind of level of investment is changing West Newton’s future around tourism,” he said. “Why nine loans here? Well that Great Allegheny Passage is a huge economic opportunity.”
Based on studies and surveys over 17 years, the Progress Fund estimates nearly a million people use the GAP trail annually -- creating an economic benefit of $50 million along the route, with 65 trail-related businesses opening in the past decade.
As the steel and coal industries have declined, Kahley said, West Newton and other towns in the region have faced years of disinvestment. But he said the Progress Fund is trying to help them see what they do have to offer.
“The resource here is the landscape and all the recreational opportunities,” he said. “So it is a fully invested economic development program, but it’s one that relies on the environmental qualities of the community, rather than being the extractive industry.”
West Virginia Trails
Kent Spellman is encouraged by the Progress Fund’s results. He’s a consultant with the Rails to Trails Conservancy, out of Washington, D.C. Spellman is pushing for this kind of development along West Virginia’s abandoned train tracks.
He has spent most of his life in West Virginia and said some communities are suffering from something like post-traumatic stress disorder because of the loss of industry in recent decades.
“Their future too often in southern West Virginia, but also in many northern West Virginia communities, has been determined by that big extractive industry, or that big steel mill, or that big chemical company,” Spellman said. “Those things are going away, and it’s a time for us I think in rural Appalachia for understanding that we have to take responsibility for our future ourselves.”
Spellman is currently focused on completing a 230-mile rail trail from Parkersburg to Morgantown, hooking up with the Great Allegheny Passage into Pittsburgh.
He sees rail trails as the new main street. The place where people walk their dogs and talk with neighbors -- and a piece of the region’s future economy. Christine Risch isn’t quite convinced.
“Well, it may never replace what was lost by the coal industry.”
Risch is director of Resource and Energy Economics at Marshall University’s Center for Business Economics, in Huntington, West Virginia.
“Because those jobs were extremely good paying jobs, and tourism industry is lower wage, closer to minimum wage,” she said.
But Risch also sees reason for hope in the tourism industry. She points to the Hatfield McCoy trail system in southwestern West Virginia -- an area she said has lost more coal jobs than most of the state. While rails to trails are for bicycles, the Hatfield-McCoy trails are for motorized all-terrain vehicles. Her center surveyed visitors there in 2014.
“We estimated based on surveys that about 22-million dollars was staying in the area, for what people were spending to buy permits to ride the trails, for lodging and food and fuel that they needed while they were in the area,” Risch said.
According to the Marshall study, the Hatfield McCoy trail system was supporting nearly 240 jobs in 2014. Risch said the number of permits sold has continued to grow since then, as has the need for lodging and other amenities to support those visitors.
“It’s not replacing the coal industry, yet, but it certainly has potential to grow, quite a lot.”
Kent Spellman said trail tourism could bring a longer-term economic boost to the region -- because it can showcase the beauty and livability of West Virginia.
“And if we get just a small percentage of the people who come through our communities to be thinking down the road about maybe that would be a good place to rear a family. Maybe that would be a good place to bring my small business. That is the goal of tourism. We should think of it as a recruitment tool not as an end unto itself.”
Mary Popovich, agrees. She’s the mayor of West Newton. She said thanks to the trail, and the economic development around it, there’s excitement in their old coal town. Even the elementary school that almost closed, is now seeing increased enrollment.
“There’s a lot of houses that are getting sold to young families. This is how you help your community grow in numbers, and then you’re going to get more businesses.”
The Progress Fund has invested a lot in West Newton, hoping other former coal towns will look here, and start re-imagining their futures as trail towns.
Julie Grant is a reporter and producer at The Allegheny Front, which is based in Pittsburgh.
This story is part of the Appalachian Innovators series, which is made possible with support from The Benedum Foundation and The Appalachian Regional Commission.