We are an outdoor recreation destination.
That statement, from Luray’s Economic Development and Tourism Coordinator Liz Lewis, is simple and perhaps obvious to those of us who know and love the Shenandoah Valley. But how do rural communities, many with limited workforce opportunities, embrace their nearby natural resources and public lands as a way to create complementary economic development and promote a high quality of life, while preserving their unique character and sense of place?
Many communities up and down the Valley, feeling vulnerable in the wake of recent economic recessions and generational shifts, are increasingly asking these questions and thinking outside the traditional economic box as a way to redefine the vision of who they are and what they want their communities to look like in the future.
As a result, communities are more and more frequently turning to tourism-based outdoor recreation. Often called “gateway communities” because they offer easy access and proximity to public lands, these places are finding innovative ways to infuse their communities with financial resources through small business development that revolves around the great outdoors.
Recently a group of stakeholders from Page, Warren, and Rockingham counties, all tied together by scenic U.S. Route 340 that meanders along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains and close to the Shenandoah National Park, attended a three-day forum designed to help communities craft a new vision of sustainable tourism and economic development. Among the attendees was Rod Graves, new Alliance board member and vice-president of Luray Caverns, one of the largest underground geologic wonders in the eastern U.S. He admits to being totally energized by the experience.
There were a dozen communities from all over the country and we connected with them and learned how to preserve our own communities and re-energize our economic base in our rural areas. It is important in a community, especially in our region, to preserve our identity and vision for the future and create something that is uniquely ours. Outdoor recreation helps us to focus economically and connect with nature, recreational activities, and historic resources. ~ Rod Graves
Lewis was also an attendee at the conference. She explained how the group is taking what they learned and developing an action plan. In the process of reinventing themselves, communities must first identify and inventory their stakeholders and associated resources and then create a plan that turns that into economic opportunity. Groups in the Valley must learn how to capitalize on their proximity to such natural wonders as Shenandoah National Park, the George Washington National Forest, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, and
the Shenandoah River.
As a result of the conference, the group is applying for a Rural Economic Development Innovation grant through the United States Department of Agriculture. Lewis said that if the grant is successful it will be used to provide technical assistance in answering questions about how to better embrace the region’s gateway assets.
We have these wonderful resources, but we don’t relate them back to promoting small business development. How do we encourage cottage industries such as someone who makes backpacks? And if we are an outdoor recreation destination, how do we tell everyone else and how do we promote ourselves? How do we turn public space into opportunity? We are working on our strategy. The ‘gateway philosophy’ is now our future. ~ Liz Lewis
The idea of “gateway tourism” is gaining momentum in other parts of the Valley as well. The city of Waynesboro lies directly south of the Page-Warren-Rockingham group. It too straddles Route 340 and is near Shenandoah National Park. The South River, one of the main tributaries to the South Fork of the Shenandoah, slices through the city. The idea of being a “gateway” community is not really new to the city. Years ago, a formal entranceway over a city road welcomed visitors with these words: “Waynesboro: Gateway [to] Shenandoah National Park.” Sign or not, until recently, green tourism has always played second fiddle to the manufacturing behemoths powered by the South River that dominated the city’s economy.
Most of those industrial giants are gone or remain as weak shadows from the past as the city embraces the river in a fresher, healthier way. No longer is the goal to extract, pollute, and curse (when it floods). Today’s city leaders embrace, partner, protect, and promote. Waynesboro’s comprehensive plan, radically revised in 2017, puts it simply: “The South River is the city’s greatest natural asset.”
Dwayne Jones, who has spent 25 years as Waynesboro’s parks and recreation director, explained that the city has gradually been making the shift from manufacturing to outdoor recreation.
When I moved here the river was forgotten and flooding. Now we have flipped that. What was a negative feature is now a positive one. We are putting people back on the river and back to nature. Our parks are linked by a four-mile water trail. ~ Dwayne Jones
Bolstered by more than a million dollars in grants, the city is creating a vibrant connection from the top of the mountain down to what the city terms its “eastern portal.” That means connecting by trail the nearly-restored Crozet Tunnel atop Afton Mountain to a new park being developed from the city’s closed landfill, down to the Basic City Beer Co. and Blue Ridge Bucha. From there visitors can walk or cycle on two miles of greenway or go fishing in the South River.
“Outdoor recreational opportunity has never been more important in the marketplace,” declares Waynesboro’s comprehensive plan. Jones puts an exclamation point on that statement. “Economically outdoor recreation is our driver. We have good infrastructure with hotels and restaurants so the outdoor piece and our connections are new sources of revenue,” he added.
According to Jones, the city leaders have bought into the gateway concept from top to bottom. So much so that the city slogan is now “Waynesboro: Where good nature comes naturally.”
This article was provided by Nancy Sorrells. Nancy wears many hats in the community. In addition to Augusta County Coordinator for the Alliance, she is a former Augusta County Supervisor, founding member of Fields of Gold agritourism initiative, freelance writer and Valley historian.
Also, thanks to Bradley Striebig Photography for the first, fourth and sixth images.