By CHARLES BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Wanted: Lodging, food and other businesses related to the ATV tourism industy in Southern West Virginia.
With the growing need to provide accommodations and services to the thousands of ATV riders coming to the region, a new initiative is getting off the ground to help entrepreneurs provide those needed businesses.
Kristina Oliver is the program administrator for the Entrepreneurship and Business Coaching Center in a nine-county region that touches the Hatfield-McCoy ATV trail system.
Oliver said it’s a joint effort between Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and the trail system with funding from the Appalachian Regional Commissoin POWER initiative.
“We want to do this because of the success of the trail system and the need for engaging entrepreneurs and reengaging small businesses in Southern West Virginia,” she said. “What we do is provide businesses coaching and technical assistance.”
Oliver said there is a “great opportunity” for existing businesses to expand and the same services are available for them.
The trail system has been “extremely successful” and is bringing in people from all over the world to ride.
“We don’t have enough accommodations,” she said. “We are encourgaging local people to consider entrepreneurship to start small businesses. We can provide the coaching to start strong and be sustainable.”
The Hatfield-McCoy Trail system starts in Mercer County and winds across the mountains for about 600 miles through five southern West Virginia counties, including McDowell.
The nine-county region impacted also includes Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln Wayne, Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties.
To date, ATV riders from all 50 states, and 13 foreign countries have traveled here to ride the trail system.
“A lot of them are looking for campgrounds, cabins, resorts, restaurants and coffee shops,” she said. “They also want to buy West Virginia products. People want souvenirs and they spend money. People want to know about the history and want to eat local food.”
Oliver said interest in local culture, art, the rail system and stories is keen and people travel to experience these things.
“We want to make Southern West Virginia that destination,” she said.
The statistics bear out the growth of the ATV business.
Hatfield-McCoy Trail System Executive Director Jeff Lusk said last week trail permit sales are up 12.4 percent for the fiscal year, and the number of permits to ride the system may break a record, topping 45,000.
“This will make us 17 years of growth,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of investments. We appreciate them. But we need more cabins and campsites. We need to get our entrepreneurs to step up.”
Lusk said, as of July, 70 percent of the growth within the trail system was coming out of Mercer and McDowell counties.
Gordon Lambert, president of the McDowell County Commission, said the impact of the ATV business is being felt.
“We got people looking to buy property here next to the trail to build cabins,” he said. “We also have a couple of new restaurants opening. One is Northfork called Riders Inn.”
Lambert said he sees other businesses opening as well.
“It’s the Hatfield-McCoy Trail,” he said. “Things are really picking up.”
Business has picked up in Mercer County as well.
Bramwell Mayor Lou Stoker recently said the “ATV business is our present and our future,” adding that the town’s rich history is attractive to ATV riders, especially after the opening of the Pocahontas trail as part of the Hatfield-McCoy system.
Bramwell is home to the Pocahontas trailhead.
“This is a place that people can come to recreate on their ATVs,” she said. “They can also park, walk around and enjoy not only the wonderful food, but the history, the museum, our houses and the friendly people.”
Stoker said the ATV riders “keep coming back” and it would be “hard to know” how many because they come and go year round.
Those visitors have had an economic impact.
“All the businesses here are doing well,” she said. “We have a couple of buildings for sale and we would like to see entrepreneurs come in and purchase those and put businesses in them.”
That is what Oliver wants to hear and she wants people to know that a way to help with the financial side of the equation is available.
As part of the mission, the Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) loan fund through the Power Plus initiative was created specifically for the Hatfield-McCoy region.
“They are loans, not grants,” she said. “But it is structured to be a little more friendly to startup businesses.”
Oliver said conventional business loans often have stricter guidelines and can be challenging.
“The NCIF has a loan fund and they have a significant amount of money they are trying to get the word out about,” she said. “We really want to underscore that the tourism industry investment is an opportunity to really engage our small communities that have been hit hard by the downturn in the energy sector and to get people to return to their roots.”
Oliver said the opprotunity is there for entrepreneurs.
“There is so much talent in this region,” she said, “talent that is both creative and business-minded. It’s all a matter of connecting that talent to the right opportunities, and helping others to learn how to steer their own ideas as they take the wheel for their own futures. That’s what I do and it is a great joy to be able to play that role, working with my fellow West Virginians as we reach for economic vitality.”
“We are truly excited to partner with Southern and their new Entrepreneurship and Business Coaching Center,” Lusk said. “We look forward to working with them and with Kristina as their new director, as we strive to accommodate the growing demand for more lodging, restaurants and activities for tourists riding the trails.”
Lusk said the center will be a valuable resource to all businesses, both new and existing. “All of them will be able to profit from the growing ATV tourism in Southern West Virginia.”
Jim Spencer, economic development director for Bluefield, said the city’s CREATE Opportunity entrepreneurship initiative fits in well with what Oliver is doing.
“My goal … is to get the region working together,” he said. “There’s a lot of great things going on we need to cooperate on … that is the intent of all of this.”
Spencer’s program brings in various resources from around the region and the state to help start-up businesses as well as the expanion of existing businesses.
“I am all about the region,” he said. “We want to leave Bluefield and Mercer County better than we found it. We need to all be working together. Many partners outside this area are in on that synergy.”
Oliver said she is looking forward to working with Spencer and others, and she is no stranger to the business world.
She has over 30 years of business expertise, ranging from founding and running her own businesses in advertising and consulting, freelancing as a designer and lecturer, and as a professor at West Virginia University.
She was recently the state director of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center.
“This initiative is just the sort of thing that I do,” Oliver said. “I’ve started my own successful businesses and I’ve coached many entrepreneurs when they started their own, so I’ve been on both sides of the effort. Southern West Virginia is just ripe for entrepreneurial opportunities, and people here are eager to put their ideas to work for themselves.”
Those interested don’t have to come to her, she added.
“I am very mobile,” she said. “It’s a real outreach. I am going out meeting people and visiting businesses. This is an awesome opportuinity and I feel truly blessed and honored to lead this effort.”
Olive can be reached at [email protected].
Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected].
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