Embracing Opportunity: Entrepreneurism on the Trail

November 13, 2017

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Embracing Opportunity: Entrepreneurism on the Trail

Photography by Hatfield McCoy Trails.

By Jean Hardiman

Southern West Virginia is seeing a rebirth in entrepreneurial opportunity along the Hatfield McCoy Trail System, which has gone from 4,000 annual all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riders to more than 39,000 in its 16-year history.

Looking to grow its success, the trail system has developed a three-year marketing plan of about $1.1 million with help from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and about a dozen local entities to increase the total annual sale of permits for ATV riders by an additional 20,000. The trail system expects to be halfway to that goal by year’s end, according to Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. Based on permits sold to riders, the trail system is on pace to have more than 45,000 visitors by the end of 2017.

Currently, more than 80 percent of the ATV riders are coming from out of state, meaning they need places to eat and sleep and things to do when they’re taking a break from the trails. The counties where the 600-mile trail system is located—as well as those surrounding it—are falling short on much-needed amenities like these. Over the past year, important partnerships have been formed and vital grants have been received to help encourage more West Virginians to launch new businesses and fill these voids.

Grants for Growth

The ARC has granted funding to the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority as part of the POWER Initiative to help market the trail and assist potential entrepreneurs. Coupled with a separate ARC grant to the Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF), the funds have helped establish a program in partnership with Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College (SWVCTC). Together, they aim to provide business coaching, small business training and risk capital to entrepreneurs developing businesses to support the in-demand trail system.

The NCIF, based in Shepherdstown, WV, received $1.25 million from the ARC—$1 million in loan capital it will use to leverage an additional $3 million in nonfederal matching funds for a total of $4 million in loan capital to support Hatfield-McCoy related businesses in the nine-county region that is targeted for the initiative. The remaining $250,000 covers operating support for the trail system’s new Southern West Virginia office and business lender, Justine White, to develop a New Markets Tax Credit Program strategy for West Virginia and coal-impacted communities.

“We have also received operating support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, One Foundation, BB&T and Woodforest National Bank and loan capital from One Foundation, United Bank and Woodforest National Bank to support our work in Southern West Virginia,” says Marten Jenkins, president of the NCIF.

Financial and technical assistance will be available to help with real estate acquisition; development of rental cabins and lodging facilities; business acquisition or expansion; business plan development; accounting assistance; market assessment; equipment financing and working capital; marketing and branding; hiring new staff as the market grows; lending; and energy efficiency.

“The Hatfield McCoy Trail System is the driving engine for the tourism industry in the southern counties of West Virginia. It has allowed new businesses to spring up in small towns and communities, casting a ray of hope for economic prosperity,” says Debrina Williams, executive director of the Hatfield McCoy Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Individuals of all ages have jumped on the bandwagon to pursue their dream of starting their own business, whether that includes opening lodging accommodations or offering guided trail tours. The entrepreneurial spirit has inspired some to start their own kayak business, allowing folks to enjoy floating down the Guyandotte River, or others to search for smooth river glass to create jewelry. The opportunities are endless in how creative a person can be.”

Partner in Education

According to Lusk, SWVCTC was a natural partner in the project, as a community college’s role has always been to train community members to contribute to a stronger economy. Also, community colleges adapt well and offer what their communities need. In this case, it’s entrepreneurial training for tourism-related businesses.

“We’re very excited about the economic development piece,” he says. “It’s been the missing link. We’ve grown so quickly, we’ve not been able to keep up.”

Leading the effort at SWVCTC is Kristina Oliver, who began her position in July as the program administrator for the Entrepreneurship and Business Coaching Center. Since then, she’s been talking to existing business owners about their needs; scoping out opportunities, such as properties that could be utilized and voids that must be filled; and rounding up a pool of experts to help with the many facets of business development and expansion as well as maintaining a healthy enterprise.

Oliver’s goal is to increase both tourism and entrepreneurship in Southern West Virginia and create a sustainable, tourism-based economy in a region that’s taken plenty of economic hits. The center will be a place to get targeted coaching and consulting catered to the specific needs of each type of business, and it will leverage already existing resources available for businesses.

“I am reaching out to businesses, West Virginia small business champions, economic developers, resource partners and service providers regarding business needs, opportunities and challenges,” says Oliver. “I have much respect and admiration for the great work being done by the many organizations and entities throughout West Virginia to help increase small business success. Our goal is to avoid duplication and partner as appropriate.”

One of the main goals right now is simply to raise awareness among West Virginians about the opportunities available. For example, there are property owners near the trail who might consider becoming an Airbnb host but perhaps are unfamiliar with the concept of Airbnb, a company that allows property owners to lease their space to travelers for a profit. There are others with ideas who might not realize the exploding popularity of the trails, putting their dreams within reach.

Creating Employment Opportunities

One of the primary challenges for the towns surrounding the trail system is a lodging shortage, even though more than 40 lodging-related businesses have opened near the trail since 2000. Opportunities also abound for adventure and arts activities and the businesses needed to support them.

The need for ATV technicians has grown as well. Last year, SWVCTC launched a power sports technology program to teach students to service, repair and maintain a variety of power sports equipment like motorcycles, ATVs, utility task vehicles and personal watercraft.

“Program graduates are prepared to be entry-level technicians and most often work as service technicians, but they may also find employment as service writers, parts department personnel and sales staff,” says Oliver.

The trail has already had a major economic impact on the area, and there’s room for more success. According to Lusk, a recent study indicated that the trail has generated more than $22 million for the local economy and supports more than 200 jobs, but so much more is needed for the trails’ ever-growing fan base.

“This is an opportunity for folks here—for West Virginians who already have roots and ties and are here to stay—to have a sustainable business in a growth market,” says Lusk. 

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