Bluefield Daily Telegraph
For years, I’ve watched many of the communities in this region stagnate. Every time I visited them, I could see the buildings erected when the coal industry was booming. There are towns with buildings one would expect to see only in bigger communities, and three or even four-story homes with servants’ quarters. Some municipalities even had dance halls and opera houses hosting acts usually found in big cities.
Well, we all know the rest of the story. Coal mines shut down and the industry stopped hiring thousands of workers. The towns depending on coal for their local economy declined. People moved away and buildings were vacated. If you’ve ever watched a show called “Life After People,” you know the next step of the story. Many buildings began to decline from lack of maintenance. Holes in rooftops allowed rain to invade the structures. Plants and ice found cracks in the walls and gradually pried them apart.
In some cases, the elements and neglect allied with gravity to bring them down. Downtown Bluefield lost the old Matz Hotel and a bank building that way. Other communities have lost structures that way as well. Businesses stayed in many of these towns, but they struggled.
Fortunately, we’re now seeing signs of activity coming back to southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. A year ago, the Pocahontas Trail, a new branch of the Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trail, opened in Mercer County. Ever since that trail opened, new activity has been flowing into the county on four wheels. Pick-up trucks hauling flatbed trailers loaded with two, three or more ATVs at a time. One Bluewell resident, Skip Crane, counted about 90 ATVs in one hour as they passed through his community.
In Bramwell, I stopped by to speak with Mayor Louise Stoker for a story. After I finished, I walked to my car and saw a sight I had not seen in years: Restaurants and stores were opening for the afternoon lunch traffic. For years I had seen only one business open in downtown Bramwell, and not for very long.
Just across the state line, Pocahontas, Va., has ATV route signs up already. An entrepreneur is establishing an ATV resort with cabins and a Laundromat right alongside the downtown, and even the upstairs of town hall is being prepared as ATV lodgings. Visiting riders are going to the nearby Pocahontas Exhibition Mine and along public roads as far as the old Pocahontas High School.
Back in Bramwell and Bluewell, more entrepreneurs are opening businesses catering to ATV travelers. The Mercer County Commission recently invited some business people to the courthouse to talk about their plans for an ATV resort near Bramwell; this one will include 50 turn-of-the-century cottages, and eventually a restaurant and an ATV wash.
The town of Matoaka is also preparing for ATV traffic. Historic buildings are being renovated, and businesses are already seeing visitors.
Officials with the Hatfield-McCoy Trail always bring up the need for more lodging; if the region is going to get the most benefit from the new Pocahontas Trail, visitors need more places to stay. The longer guests stay, the more money they leave behind in the local economy.
It’s an exciting time for the region. Catering to the needs of ATV riders might not be as good as major manufacturing, but it still brings money into the area and supports small businesses. Larger cities like Princeton and Bluefield stand to benefit from ATV traffic, too, if they offer services that appeal to tourists. Folks who love ATV riding don’t ride every second of their vacations. They want other things to do, like eat at locally-owned restaurants and visit local shops offering things they can’t find back home.
I’ve never ridden an ATV, but I should try it sometime. I had some interest in motorcycles when I was growing up, but the idea of me on a chopper horrified my Mom and still does to this day. What’s the solution? Just don’t tell her. Maybe I could ride one of the ATVs with a roll cage just to see what it feels like to ride the Pocahontas Trail and get covered with mud.
I hope the ATV trend continues because it’s certainly bringing more activity to communities that haven’t seen any for a long time. Our cities and towns need to keep looking for ways to capitalize on this new traffic; eventually, our region could become known as a place to visit for more than ATV riding. We have a lot of scenic beauty and history as well as talented people, so there are possibilities for even more expansion.
The ATV industry likely won’t restore the activity seen when the coal industry was booming, but it will still bring more economic stimulus than we have seen for decades. If local people show a willingness to invest in the trend and welcome the people who come to ride the trails, we could see a welcome and continuing source of prosperity.
Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.