By Jina Belcher
Executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority
After recently celebrating two years in the role of executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, I’m proud to reflect on the successes of our work, and the work of our programs – the WV Hive, providing intentional business advising support and technical assistance, and the Country Roads Angel Network, the only accredited angel investment network in the Mountain State.
Throughout my life as a southern WV native, I’ve worked at non-profit community and economic development organizations during both lean and good times. Despite the many challenges that often stigmatize West Virginians, I continue to remain personally and professionally invested in the economic well-being of this region and its people.
Most recently, while the Covid-19 pandemic tested business and community resiliency, prompted raging inflation and induced supply chain challenges, I’m confident that I have never been more bullish on the New River Gorge region’s future.
During my first year as executive director, I focused on educating local, state, and regional leaders on the importance of proactive infrastructure development while simultaneously working to develop ready sites throughout the region. Now, as I close out my second year in this role, I am focused on growing our capacity at NRGRDA and maximizing the assets we must have to create jobs, retain workers, encourage small and large business growth, as well as to enhance outdoor recreation, industry, and educational strengths.
Over the last six months, the NRGRDA and its programs, the WV Hive and Country Roads Angel Network, have been active in recruiting locally educated and skilled leaders to join our team to conduct essential strategic planning, manage multiple projects, work closely with entrepreneurs and established businesses, and guide our gateway communities to capitalize on the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve designation.
The NRGRDA’s mission is to initiate, facilitate and support the economic and community development efforts within the counties of Fayette, Nicholas, Raleigh, and Summers located in this region of southern West Virginia. NRGRDA stimulates the regional economy through business expansion and retention efforts, including an extensive portfolio of financial services; the management of sites for new companies locating to our region; and serving as a point of access for local service providers which offer a variety of technical assistance for business owners.
I appreciate the opportunity to update our community on the significant progress being made on all our strategic goals. They include but are not limited to:
— Site preparation and development of an additional 105 acres located at the Raleigh County Memorial Airport industrial park is ready to break ground on construction with completion set for Q4 2022;
— The comprehensive 10-year planning process for Fayette County has received valuable input from stakeholders and residents, and it has revealed essential community needs;
— Remediation of the former Hinton Ice House continues including a robust market analysis identifying the feasibility for an agri-tourism industry;
— Development planning and marketing to support Pinecrest Development Corp.’s decision to transfer ownership of Pinecrest Business and Technology Park to the City of Beckley;
— Support for New River Community and Technical College as it moves toward implementation of its AMT school that will support the aerospace workforce demand;
— WVU Tech LaunchLab’s collaborative partnership with the WV Hive;
— Both medical cannabis companies, Verano and Holistic Industries, are actively hiring and ready to open their doors to the industry;
— Strategy support, project identification, and project implementation for the communities throughout the National Park footprint;
— Communities of Healing, an innovative recovery to work program now in its second year, has signed on 14 new businesses to participate in the co-hort training;
— Federal support for the six-state Outdoor Recreation Industry and Vibrant Economies Strategies (Outdoor RIVERS) project is forthcoming to enhance the outdoor recreation assets within Central Appalachia in partnership with the WVU Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative;
— Country Roads Angel Network has grown to 26 investors, made three significant investments in new businesses, and has two more promising deals being finalized; and
— The WV Hive continues to assist its small business clients and offer key insights to owners, and it held its inaugural Coffee Talks to encourage networking and collaboration.
I could not be more proud of the many promising developments coming to fruition or in progress within the New River Gorge. Know that our job at the NRGRDA is never done and we welcome community, business, and governmental collaboration to improve our quality of life and to welcome new residents and tourists.
The National Park Service reported recently that 1.7 million people visited our new national park, an increase of more than 600,000 from 2020. Let’s make those visitors think about relocating here or doing business with us, and offer the tools to make it happen.
— Jina Belcher is executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority and a graduate of Concord University. She, her husband, and daughter reside in Beckley and enjoy the regional outdoor opportunities as often as possible.