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West Virginia legislative leaders hope hosting Southern Legislative Conference generates millions in economic impact

Event set for July 21-25, 2024, at the Greenbrier

By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – In July 2024, the Council of State Governments Southern Office (CSG South) will host its annual Southern Legislative Conference (SLC) at The Greenbrier. And, although the event is still 10 months away, West Virginia Legislative staff members are already making plans to showcase the best of the Mountain State. 

According to Ann Ali, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the West Virginia House of Delegates, this five-day conference, July 21-25, will bring together state leaders from 15 of the nation’s southernmost states to exchange information, learn policy and build relationships. Additionally, each hosting state is able to promote local tourism opportunities and highlight its uniqueness to thousands who attend. 

“The SLC this year (held in Charleston, SC) was record-breaking because of the numbers of people who attended,” Ali said, noting that the last time the SLC was in West Virginia was in 2012. “We have several folks who still work here who attended that conference, and they describe it as being an ‘All Hands on Deck’ situation because there are so many people.” 

In the 2023 SLC summary report, found on the CSG South website, there were 2,077 attendees creating a $8.2 million economic impact for Charleston, SC.

Casey Long, deputy chief of staff for the West Virginia Senate, added that while it’s still very early in the planning process, “We hope to be able to replicate the economic impact Charleston, South Carolina experienced.” 

Long noted that West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, has said, ‘Come early, stay late.”

Senate President Blair, will serve as chair of the CSG South Executive Committee in 2024.

Long explained, “The intention of this would be to give people the opportunity to experience as much as they can at The Greenbrier, and the other attractions in White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg.” 

Jacque Bland, director of communications for the West Virginia Senate, said that it is going to take a lot of work to make sure the conference runs smoothly. 

“We have been planning as much as we can since we got back,” Bland stated. “We will be working with Chelsea Ruby (Cabinet Secretary of the W.Va. Department of Tourism) to make sure we get as many state and local businesses, crafts and artisans involved in the process as we can. We want people to enjoy spending their time in Greenbrier, Summers, Monroe – all those beautiful areas, and enjoy spending their vacation here.” 

Ali explained that the CSG South encourages legislators to bring their family members to the conference, which means that staff will be able to plan fun, family-friendly activities for them while they are in West Virginia. 

During the recent SLC, some of the activities included touring a retired battleship, taking a guided ghost carriage tour, learning how to make biscuits at local favorite Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, and visiting a local aquarium, Ali said. 

“One of our staff members’ 12-year-old went on the carriage tour and thought it was super cool,” Ali said, adding that finding activities for legislative guests is something that she has been thinking a lot about. “We feel like The Greenbrier will give us that leg up in planning and offering a lot of these things because it’s kind of built in there.” 

Bland added, “I know the bunker tour is something that people really love, and has been requested by a lot of those who have expressed interest in coming.” 

“I know we are going to be able to do some really nice in-house activities for people,” she continued. 

One of the projects completed at each SLC is a service project, Ali explained. In South Carolina, attendees packed 110,000 meals for Charleston’s Lowcountry Food Bank.

“We will also have a service project,” she said. “We don’t have that nailed down, but we will do one.” 

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, Casey Long and Senate President Clair Blair pose for a photo during WV Night at the 2023 SLC in Charleston, SC. Photo Credit: Belletti Photography accessed on CSG South website

Also, in South Carolina, it was up to staff members to put together a West Virginia night, Ali noted. This helped prepare staff for some of the planning responsibilities they will have in 2024. 

According to Ali, Bourbon from Smooth Ambler was served at the bar. Chef Paul Smith, West Virginia’s first James Beard Award Finalist, served pepperoni rolls, and a local band – the River City Dixieland Jazz Band – entertained event attendees by playing folk/jazz music, including the song Country Roads.

“Casey and other staff members took the lead on planning our state night, and CSG guided that,” Ali said, adding that they even had vendors bring in poker tables and decorated the room in the style of The Greenbrier. 

“No money was exchanged, but it was to get people excited about the casino at The Greenbrier,” Ali said. 

While still in West Virginia, staff members decided to make themed goody bags, filled with chocolates, soap, a golf ball and more to hand out to West Virginia night attendees. However, the task was a little more difficult than originally planned. 

“A smaller detail that went into planning West Virginia night in Charleston, SC, that I wouldn’t have thought about when all the planning started, was how to get everything to the event space. There were a lot of pieces that needed to be transported to South Carolina, and that was a puzzle trying to make sure everything fit into the car,” Long explained. 

Then, in South Carolina, all these small items had to go into bags to be handed out. 

Ali explained that they decided to form an assembly line to make the job go quicker. As West Virginia legislators would walk by the assembly room, they would roll up their sleeves to help out. 

“It was ‘All Hands on Deck’ for sure,” Ali added. 

West Virginia themed goody bags were packed by legislative staff and legislators at the 2023 SLC in Charleston, SC. Photo by Jacque Bland

“President Blair was in the room helping us out for a while,” Bland noted, adding that in the end, 700 bags were stuffed with goodies and handed out. 

“It was really great hearing people the next day talking about how much fun they had at our night,” Bland continued. … “In South Carolina, there are beaches, and it’s a big tourist destination, so we wonder, ‘Will we be able to bring a large audience to The Greenbrier?’ Then you start hearing all these people who say, ‘I’ve seen pictures in magazines,’ or that they have always wanted to go to The Greenbrier. So, it was really great.” 

She said she is not apprehensive about the continued planning that will be required for SLC 2024. 

“If you look at it like smaller pieces to make a whole, it’s a lot easier to digest than planning one conference for a lot of people,” Bland said. “When you have a good team together to build each of these parts, it’s a lot less overwhelming.”

Long added, “ A hope I have for next year, and I’m sure there are others that would echo this, is that I hope everyone has an unforgettable time, and I hope that the love we all have for our state is reflected in the conference for everyone else to experience. President Blair is so proud of everything West Virginia has to offer, and I hope we’re able to showcase that to all of the people who attend.” 

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