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Local businesses welcome return of Greenbrier Classic

By TINA ALVEY

The Register-Herald

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Stormy weather early this week set a soggy stage for the resumption of The Greenbrier Classic after last year’s PGA Tour event was canceled following a flood of near-biblical proportions.

Spectators watch golfers hit tee shots from the 18th hole during the first round of The Greenbrier Classic.
(Photo by Rick Barbero)

But the golfers’ bane this year turned out to be a boon for local shopkeepers, who had toughed out last summer’s sluggish sales in hopes of an economic recovery, boosted in part by the thousands of visitors drawn to Greenbrier County by the Classic.

“Our season is totally kicked off,” enthused Heather Fox, an employee of Studio 40 in downtown Lewisburg. “June was great, and this (Thursday) morning has been good.”

Featuring American-made clothing, accessories and jewelry, the shop at the corner of Washington and Court streets attracts local shoppers and visitors alike. But both of those groups were in short supply in the summer of 2016, when county residents were consumed with flood recovery, and tourists avoided what was then a disaster-stricken region.

“It’s really nice after last year to see so many people in town shopping,” Fox said. “We were optimistic, and it really paid off.”

Other downtown shopkeepers also commented with a hint of relief on the return of a “normal” summer in the touristy little town. Clerks in both Harmony Ridge Gallery and Yarid’s shoe store mentioned the number of “golf wives” who had abandoned the links during Wednesday’s rainstorm in favor of a little retail therapy.

“For us, business this year is comparable to 2015 (when the Classic was last held),” Yarid’s manager Nina Blankenship said Thursday. “With the tournament starting today, we will see a good bit of traffic in the shop through the weekend.”

Blankenship noted she had seen about 25 buses lined up at the state fairgrounds early that morning, waiting to shuttle golf fans from the fair parking lot to The Greenbrier, 11 miles away in White Sulphur Springs.

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Kara Dense, executive director of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), also took the increase in traffic to be a welcome sign, as is a report that all of the county’s major hotels are filled to capacity.

In addition to lodging establishments and downtown shops, area restaurants and gas stations will all benefit directly from the influx of visitors, she said.

“Everybody in this region benefits, either directly or indirectly, from The Greenbrier Classic,” Dense said. “Tourism is the largest employer in the county. Local people are working — and getting paid for — extra hours to keep up with the demand. While visitors are here, they may blow a tire or get sick; all of those services are needed. It absolutely affects all of us.”

Other benefits also accrue to the tourism industry, both locally and statewide, Dense said, noting that the CVB spent $450,000 loaned by the Greenbrier County Commission to rebuild the area’s reputation as a tourist destination following the flood. As large a figure as that seems, Dense said it still wasn’t enough to penetrate national markets in the way the Classic will.

“When the public sees specials on CBS or the Golf Channel, they will learn about how much we’ve been through and how we have recovered and how beautiful it is here,” she said. “The golf announcers love The Greenbrier and this county. They can reach people we just can’t.”

After all of the positive publicity from this year’s Classic, Dense said, “People will know we’re open for business.”

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Although no attendance count has yet been undertaken this year, The Greenbrier’s director of sports public relations, Cam Huffman, said 30,000 people registered for free grounds passes for the PGA event prior to the June 30 cutoff. And another 800-plus volunteers, many of them out-of-towners, are working at the Classic, he said.

Add in the 156 professional golfers competing in the tournament — and their families and caddies — and celebrities who played in Wednesday’s Pro-Am, along with state and national media covering the event, and it’s not a stretch to say the Greenbrier County population (officially 35,450) probably has doubled this week.

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