By CHARLES BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
TAZEWELL, Va. — When Tazewell County resident Larry Davidson returned to his home after retiring from the military, he saw an untapped potential that fit in with one of his favorite things to do and could possibly help with economic development.
From that first idea and some t-shirt sales promoting it in 2008, his vision has been coming to fruition and benefitting countless people in the process.
Davidson loves motorcycles and he realized how much fun it is to ride a bike from Tazewell to Marion, crossing three mountains with beautiful views along the way and a winding, challenging Rt. 16 to navigate.
“This is just a fantastic place to ride,” he said. “Better than in other parts of the world. This was an untapped natural resource.”
Davidson has been to several countries, but none, he said, has roads or scenery any more beautiful than what Rt. 16 offers.
So 10 years ago, he and his friend Danny Addison and others set out to put the route on the bikers map, calling the 32-mile trek the “Back of the Dragon.”
“The name is based on Indian folklore,” he said, referring to the topography from this area to the Tennessee-North Carolina line, a 180-mile route that the Indians called the dragon.“The other end is the tail and Rt. 16 is the back.”
Davidson and his friends eventually got legislators on board and took the idea to Richmond. They were met with enthusiasm, recognizing the tourism potential.
“We are now the only designated road in the state for motorcycles,” he said.
But that was just the beginning of the story.
“Is is amazing what has happened,” Davidson said. “It has exploded. God has blessed us.”
Numbers of visitors have continued to grow, not only with bikes but cars as well as word has spread and aggressive promotions were initiated. A temporary headquarters was erected on West Fincastle Turnpike in Tazewell where visitors can gather, have picnics, purchase Back of the Dragon items and become familiar with other things to see and do in the area.
David Woodard, tourism and community development director for Tazewell County, said that last year more than 60,000 bikers road the Back of the Dragon as well as many sports cars.
Those riders were from 42 states and six countries, he said, and the growing popularity of the ride has already spurred the economic development Davidson was hoping for.
“It has been a catalyst for 42 new businesses, 14 expanded businesses, 306 new jobs and about $10 million in private investments in the tourism industry,” he said.
The Town of Tazewell has seen new restaurants established as well as a planned 55-room motel in the works.
It has also been a catalyst for regional cooperation.
“When it came to leading a tourism revolution, the Back of the Dragon has led the way,” he said, adding that every official from local municipalities along the route are on board as well as state tourism officials, who provide promotions.
In fact, on Thursday officials from Marion and Tazewell held the annual Dragon Bowl press conference, which promotes the football game between Tazewell and Marion high schools, each town a destination at the ends of the dragon’s back.
During that event, Tazewell Mayor Don Buchanan said the Back of the Dragon is part of an “economic boom” the town is seeing.
“It’s a blessing to have all of these people come from outside the area,” he said.
Marion Mayor David Helms agreed. “We can really see an economic boom in our town,” he said. “It’s really been great for us.”
“This is great,” said Ron Thomason, director of tourism for Smythe County. “We have just scratched the surface of where we are going to take the Back of the Dragon.”
The Dragon Bowl Cup stays in Marion this year again, as the host team Tazewell lost 34-20 Friday night.
Woodard said all entities involved now have a “true partnership” and all have worked together well.
“Nobody is afraid of failure in this,” he said, adding that the county has gone to many trade shows and those trips have worked well. “We have put a lot of marketing in the D.C. and Northern Virginia area.”
A trip to a trade show in Chicago saw many riders from that area hit the Dragon. “We have seen positive results from every show,” he said. “Some more than others, but all positive.”
Woodward said they go to strategic shows to tap markets and the Back of the Dragon has been featured in many national magazines as well as articles in the New York Times and USA Today.
At the headquarters in Tazewell Thursday, Davidson said all of that marketing has paid off, with motorcycle and car club riders coming from all around the country and other countries as well.
“I get blown away by where all of these visitors come from,” he said, scanning the guest book and seeing recent visitors from Australia, Vermont, Quebec, New York, California, Nova Scotia and Detroit. “We have a lot of German and English visitors. Some recently flew from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Chattanooga, Tenn., rented Eagle Riders and they came through.”
During the Thursday visit to the headquarters, a couple from Johnston City, Tenn. stopped by.
They told Jamie Cartwright, who runs the headquarters and shop that sells Back of the Dragon gear, they were visiting New York recently and saw the Times article.
After they returned home, they decided to bring their Dodge Challenger to Tazewell to run Rt. 16.
“This is the best job,” said Cartwright. “I love it. Everyone who comes here is so nice.”
Davidson is not just sitting on what has been accomplished. He’s still on the move with progress.
A new headquarters is on the way to replace the temporary structure.
“Everything is ordered,” he said of the modular metal building with 5,000 square feet of space. A company out of Roanoke is bringing it and placing it on the site. “We are waiting for them to deliver it.”
Davidson said when it is set up, the electrical, plumbing and interior work will begin.
“We are hoping to have a grand opening in the spring,” he said, adding that it will house a brewery, a frozen yogurt store, coffee shop, prepared food and the Back of the Dragon shop.
But Davidson emphasized it will be a family-oriented headquarters, complete with a 15-ft. tall, glowing red-eyed roaring dragon based on the dragons seen in the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.”
Local sculptor Jack Hagerman is now building the dragon.
Davidson and Cartwright said there is not much idle time. A BMW-M4 car club with about 170 cars is scheduled to come through next weekend, and even in colder weather, bikers hit the road anyway.
“It’s going to be phenomenal.” Davidson said of the future for the Back of the Dragon. “We are excited.”
Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org.