Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

May 2, 2012

Is Mercer County ready for an influx of out-of-town Hatfield-McCoy Trail visitors?

By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— It has been said that imitation is often the greatest form of flattery. There is certainly some truth to that statement. And sometimes it can be argued that if your neighbor is doing a better job than you are at a certain task or assignment, maybe you should take a look at how he or she is doing things.

We’ve been meeting with candidates — lots and lots of candidates — over the past few weeks. The candidates come to our meetings prepared, and are often ready to argue as to why they are the best man or the best woman for the job. You have to admire their fighting spirit. But there is one question we often ask that will normally trip up even the best, and most skilled, politician. And it really shouldn’t. As it is a simple question. Why not work with your neighbors? Why not schedule meetings with other mayors, city managers and county administrators? Why not talk about the region as a whole? Why not have a meeting with neighboring counties, and even your neighbors across the state line border? There is much we can learn, and can do together, if we actually work together as one region. Not isolated cities. Not individual communities. But towns, cities, communities and even counties working together as a region united for its own betterment.

The state line border is an imaginary line. We cross it everyday — often multiple times as part of our daily duties. Talking to our friends across the state line border shouldn’t be viewed as some horrible act. In fact, there is much our West Virginia-side leaders can learn from our Virginia-side leaders, and vice versa. However, candidates often appear stunned, and confused, when such a question is asked. It never ceases to amaze me.

This brings me to the point of this column. It is a tale of two trails if you will. It’s no secret that our Virginia-side leaders have openly fashioned the new Spearhead Trail system after the southern West Virginia-based Hatfield-McCoy Trail. They openly admit it. And they actually have been working with trail officials in West Virginia as they develop the Virginia-side trail. You can’t fault the folks in Tazewell County for attempting to emulate a successful West Virginia-based project. The two trails after all could still connect somewhere in the Bramwell and Pocahontas communities.

Now comes the big question. The official “soft opening” of the Mercer County segment of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails is less than 30 days away. That means hundreds — and over time thousands — of out-of-town visitors will soon be on their way to Mercer County. Are we ready?

It sounds like town officials in Bramwell are doing everything in their power to get ready. Mayor Louise Stoker told me Tuesday afternoon that the ribbon will be cut May 25 to mark the official opening of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail. Ribbon cutting ceremonies also will be held on the same day for new lodging facilities in the town that will accommodate ATV riders. That’s critically important.

But are there a sufficient number of hotels, motels, convenience stations, restaurants, bed and breakfast establishments and other developments ready along the trail corridor? If not, what is being done by county officials to expedite the development of these necessary facilities? Also, what is the plan to promote our region, and our local attractions, to the trail visitors who will be here in less than 30 days? They will after all be looking for other things to do, and places to go, while in the region.

Trail officials, including Hatfield-McCoy Executive Director Jeff Lusk, are still talking about the need to attract new hotels, motels, ATV camp sites, convenience stations and other accommodations that will be necessary for the off-road visitors who will be converging upon Mercer County beginning this Memorial Day weekend. And with time, those hundreds of trail riders will become thousands of trail riders.

Is Mercer County ready for this influx of visitors? It is a valid question. The soft-opening is less than 30 days away. And Mercer County will be the first trail system for visitors from the Interstate 77 and 81 corridors. It is important to remember that the out-of-state visitors prefer staying along the trail, or close to the trail. Yes, we have plenty of hotels and motels in Princeton and Bluefield, but what about Bluewell, Bramwell and Matoaka? Do we have a sufficient number of convenience stations, ATV shops and restaurants to accommodate these visitors?

That’s the big question that will be answered in less than 30 days. The lack of lodging, and appropriate trail facilities, is still a problem across the 600 mile southern West Virginia trail system. Mercer County has had plenty of time, and advance notice, to prepare for the opening of the trail system. Let’s hope we are ready.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com