By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A person who once called the Washington, D.C., and Maryland region home now works to promote the attractions offered by her adopted home, southern West Virginia.
Marie Blackwell, executive director of the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau, has held her current post for more than three years. When she started at the bureau in 1999, she didn’t have any experience in the tourism industry.
“I’m actually from the Washington D.C./Maryland area and moved here with my husband, Dave, in 1970, and I used to work selling medical supplies with Skyland Hospital Supply; it used to be part of Bluefield Supply,” Blackwell recalled at her office on Bland Street in downtown Bluefield. “And then I worked for the American Red Cross as their health and safety instructor.”
After other jobs in the home health industry, she decided that it was time for a change.
“I was looking for a career change, and Beverly Wellman, who was the previous director, she talked with me and I was up against several other people who were in the tourism industry already,” Blackwell recalled. “I felt that she probably wouldn’t hire me because I wasn’t in the tourism industry and I actually wasn’t from here, but she did choose me. She saw some potential, I guess. She hired me and it’s been a great ride ever since. She’s been a wonderful mentor to me and she still is a great friend. Tourism is a fun job. I love promoting the county and the state of West Virginia as a whole.”
The convention and visitor bureau’s offices are located at 704 Bland St., but it promotes the county as a whole, Blackwell explained.
“Actually, the bureau is a marketing organization for the area, but we do assist travelers who come in and are looking for information. If they need lodging information, we’ll help them locate a room,” she said. “If they’re looking for local eating or dining at a chain, we help them with that. We have our visitors’ guide that we will give them that shows lodging, dining, attractions, things like that. We’re just basically here to help them enjoy their experience while they’re here in Mercer County.”
But Blackwell does not spend all her time in the office telling people about Mercer County. She also shows them around the area.
“I do, I do. Being the executive director, I’m also over group tours and I do sample itineraries for tour operators, some churches and just some groups that are coming to the area,” she said. “I recently finished two theater tours that were new tours for me, they took off and were very well received. And then I did a tour recently for Bramwell. I do an art group tour. Everything we do is ‘discover.’ That’s part of our brand. Discover America’s coal story. Discover theater in southern West Virginia. Discover art in West Virginia.”
Blackwell goes to the county’s hotels on a monthly basis to keep them informed about the new things going on. One new thing visitors can hear about is the Hatfield-McCoy Trail’s new branch in Mercer County.
“Our trail is called the Pocahontas Trail and its trail head is located in Bramwell,” Blackwell said. “This is such a huge economic boost for the county, and you can sit in my office every day and watch the ATVs go by from all different states. It’s a welcomed addition to the attractions and the outdoor recreation things to do in this county. They’re coming from all over.”
She has learned during her trips out of state that word about the new ATV riding opportunity is spreading.
“A couple of years ago I did a travel show in the Cleveland, Ohio area, and all they wanted to do was talk about the Hatfield-McCoy Trail. We’re getting them from Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania,” Blackwell said. “They’re just coming from all over and the word is spreading. We do have to work on more lodging in the area. That is a must. They like the trails and it’s great that they connect, and those trails are monitored for safety, and that, too, is a plus for visitors.”
Not being far from major highways is another asset of the new trail.
“We are in close proximity to Interstate 77 and we’re really not that far from (Interstate) 81. We make an easy stop for them,” Blackwell said. “I believe all the little communities as well as all the towns and cities are going to see growth due to this trail head.”
“The Pocahontas Trail in Bramwell is an easier trail ride. It’s not quite as aggressive as the other trails, so it can be like a family trail. Families will come to Bramwell. It’s an easy ride. I was out on the trail at the end of May, and it is just awesome, the view and the ride. It’s really awesome,” she said. “They’re hoping they can make a way to connect through to Matoaka. That’s going to be really great.”
Blackwell recalled her trips to recent travel shows. When guests see the southern West Virginia banners at her booth, they want to talk about ATV opportunities and other attractions.
“They are definitely interested in coal and railroads. We were trying to decide what to do for our cover of our visitor’s guide. I was at a travel show in Columbus, Ohio and had a bunch of coal memorabilia and brochures out,” Blackwell said. “And everyone wanted to come and talk about coal and the railroad industry here. I called my office and said we’re beating our head against the wall trying to figure out a branding when what we are is coal and railroad history. That’s what the people want to learn about, so that’s what our branding is. Discover America’s Coal Story, and it’s very well received.”
The word about southern West Virginia is also being seen outside the region. Buses featuring billboards about tourism opportunities. One titled “America’s Coal Story” ran on a Washington, D.C., bus during the month of June. The Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau has also partnered with five other bureaus to sponsor a bus that has toured the nation’s capitol, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
“It just goes all around and it’s like a traveling billboard for our area,” Blackwell said. “I passed it one day on Interstate 77, a couple of weeks ago pulled into Bowen Field for Lemonade Night with the Blue Jays, and there sat that bus. That bus had been used to transport the Princeton Rays to Bluefield to play the game that night. It was quite a conversation piece that night. People wanted to know what it was, and I was there to tell them what it was.”
“I love promoting the area and I love the people I come into contact with. My tours that I do, some of those tours are out of Virginia, the D.C./Maryland area, North Carolina. The people that you meet on these tours, they’re just wonderful people, and they love to hear our story and they love to go on these tours and visit our attractions. We’ve got so much to promote,” Blackwell said. “Such great attractions. It’s just a lot of fun to be out there and to be able to tell people about our area.”
One recent visitor was photography contest winner and Boy Scout Wyatt Guersney of Conifer, Colo. Blackwell showed him around Mercer County’s various attractions and restaurants. The guest represented a new and large potential group of visitors: the Boy Scouts and families that will attend jamborees and other events at the new Boy Scout camp opening in nearby Fayette County. Visitors from the Boy Scouts and other groups are now able to see on the Internet what Mercer County has to offer.
“The bureau has started a blog,” Blackwell said. “A mobile site for the bureau just went live.”
— Contact Greg Jordan at