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Trail system can make real money

The Spearhead Trails initiative believes Southwest Virginia can top the revenue generation of the trail system after which it is modeled.

This is not “a trails project,” Chuck Riedhammer told Wise County supervisors Thursday, but a full-fledged economic development initiative centered around adventure tourism visitors and businesses to create a sustained economic benefit to the region. Spearhead Trails is the undertaking of the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority, which encompasses the seven counties of far Southwest Virginia.

The trail system is modeled after the successful 500-mile Hatfield and McCoy trail network in West Virginia. Other states have proven it works, Riedhammer said.

Last year, Hatfield-McCoy sold 27,535 rider permits for offhighway vehicles, earning $1.7 million in revenue, he said.

Local expenditures were more than $20 million, he said, generating $1.23 million in sales tax. The sales tax alone returned the state’s annual investment, he said.

With the same investment, Riedhammer said, Virginia could have even greater potential and better return on investment, at three to one. Why?

Virginia has more venues, better tourism-related infrastructure, more land, a higher concentration of landowners and more opportunity for land-use agreements, he said.

The Hatfield and McCoy system caters only to all-terrain vehicles. Spearhead Trails will target ATVs, too, he said, but it won’t stop there. Spearhead Trails is a multi-venue adventure destination with off-highway vehicle trails, equestrian trails, blueways as well as hiking and mountain biking, he said.

Riedhammer pointed out that 90 percent of the visitors to the Hatfield-McCoy trails are from out of state, and many of those are from Virginia. They go, he said, because it is there and they don’t have a Virginia option.

The recreation authority wants to tap into this revenue stream and keep visitors spending in Virginia, Riedhammer said. The aim is to have more people staying longer and spending more, he said.

Research shows that off-highway and equestrian trail users:

Stay three to four days each visit; and spend $150 to more than $200 per day.

Sixty percent of these trail users will return more than one time per year.

The regional recreation authority projects it will have 200 miles of trails open this year and by 2016 will have opened 400 miles of trails for off-highway vehicles, 200 miles of equestrian trails, with 10 trailheads and related support businesses.

They predict Spearhead Trails will contribute $10 million in visitor expenditures, create 200-plus new jobs and generate more than $1 million in state and local taxes by 2016. To accomplish this, he said, local and state investment will be critical during the first three years of growth. The West Virginia legislature has allocated more than $1 million per year for the past five years to fund the Hatfield-McCoy trail network.

Jack McClanahan, head of the regional recreation authority, said developing a trail system across seven counties had grown past what a handful of volunteers could do. That’s why they hired an executive director.

McClanahan said he’s tickled to death to have Riedhammer on board, noting that he was involved in the creation of The Crooked Road heritage music trail and most recently was marketing director of the Heartwood artisan center in Abingdon.

Riedhammer told the board he had a good job but was so excited by Spearhead Trails he wanted to be part of it.

Riedhammer commended Wise County for its Community Days at Heartwood, noting that “people are still talking about it.” The county delivered a community day with record attendance.

At Spearhead, he said, he had to hit the ground running as the leaders had a laundry list of tasks already lined up.

On that list, McClanahan said, is an ATV safety training facility. That had been put on the back burner, he told supervisors, but now they want to pursue it as quickly as possible.

The feasibility study is done and it showed what they already knew about the region’s potential, McClanahan said.

The implementation plan, including budget, marketing study and business plan, is nearing completion and should be complete by the end of the month, he said.

“Now we’ve got to get product to market,” McClanahan said.

At the end of the meeting, District 4 supervisor Robby Robbins said the board needed to make sure it advocated for Spearhead Trails during its upcoming trip to the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond. County Administrator Shannon Scott advised that efforts on behalf of Spearhead are already on the board’s agenda for that trip.

Riedhammer said the recreation authority also will be going to Richmond to lobby for legislative support, he said.

SRRA-Coalfield-Story (PDF)