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Go Outside in West Virginia

A woman stands on a paddleboard with oar at sunset on Summersville Lake.

Written by Diana Mazzella
Photographs Provided by the West Virginia Department of Tourism

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On a table at the Snowshoe Mountain resort were several pieces of paper and two pens. And with those, Danny Twilley and Greg Corio were working on an idea to change West Virginia’s place through outdoor recreation. They spent two full days brainstorming a framework on those sheets of paper. When they finished, “Greg said, ‘Danny, I don’t know what we’re on to, and I don’t know if we can bring it to life, but we’re on to something,’” Twilley recalled.

Twilley wasn’t so sure about what they would actually create, but he was game. Corio – who started the highly successful Adventure WV program that integrated outdoor recreation into college and K-12 education at West Virginia University – was enticing Twilley from Ohio University to spearhead what would become the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC) at WVU.

It was just on paper right now. But Twilley, who is from Salisbury, Md., was doing this out of his love for a state that he completely believes in. 

“This state can do it,” Twilley said. “This state has every chance in the world to compete with some of the states over the last 20 years that have really leveraged outdoor recreation for economic prosperity. And I knew it. I knew it in my bones, in the core of who I am. And so I was giving my time and creativity to it.” 

Two months later, he got the call to start work at WVU. A few short months later, the Smith OEDC would be part of a multimillion-dollar project, in collaboration with the West Virginia Department of Tourism, attracting new residents from across the country and investing in one of the state’s most valuable assets: its beauty.

Photo of adult and two kids hiking a trail among rocks with a waterfall in the background at Blackwater Falls.
Blackwater Falls in summer is a popular place to hike and visit the falls overlook.

SEEING POTENTIAL 

On Jan. 1, 2020, Twilley started work at the University as assistant dean at the collaborative. His team started asset mapping and looking at national outdoor statistics. Corio and Twilley made a presentation about the potential for outdoor economic development and shared it with anyone who was interested. 

“And when I say anyone, it could be one person, it could be 50 people,” he said. A few weeks before COVID-19 hit local communities to develop outdoor recreation opportunities and the Ascend WV remote worker program.

In April, Gov. Jim Justice announced the Ascend WV remote worker program that would attract workers to Morgantown, Lewisburg and Shepherdstown through incentives of $12,000, a year of free outdoor recreation, coworking space and community building efforts.

“Today, we are rolling out the red carpet and inviting remote workers from across the country to make Almost Heaven, West Virginia their new home,” Justice said.

During the legislative session this spring, the legislature passed House Bill 2026, which modernized tax structures for workers living in the state but receiving income from an entity outside the state. 

“As a land-grant institution, West Virginia University is committed to supporting the needs of our local communities and our state by providing opportunities to pursue higher education,” Gee said. “Thanks to the support and vision of Brad and Alys Smith, our outdoor recreation initiative, coupled with this remote worker program, is now well-positioned to take advantage of this unique moment in our history. I am confident this program will ignite an interest in West Virginia, as well as boost West Virginia’s economy.” 

Brad and Alys Smith sit on a rocky summit with arms raised and wearing helmets.An ATV kicks up dust at the Hatfield-McCoy ATV trail.
Brad and Alys Smith sit atop the summit of Seneca Rocks (Photograph by Brian Persinger). One highlight for the adventurous in West Virginia is the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, which provide more than 1,000 miles for exploring by ATV.

While West Virginia has exceptional natural assets, it is struggling to keep its population. Between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, the state lost nearly 60,000 people out of 1.8 million, and consequently, lost a U.S. House of Representatives seat and a vote in the Electoral College. There’s a common tale that alumni originally from the state tell, about going away and then coming back when they can. Now, there’s one more way to return. 

The Ascend WV remote worker program opened 50 spots in Morgantown for remote workers in April. Within 36 hours, 2,000 people applied to the program, and more than 7,500 did so before the deadline closed, including people from all 50 states and 70-plus countries. The state’s Department of Tourism told WOWK TV in Huntington that within three days, there had been 65,000 inquiries about moving to West Virginia through the program. 

Everything that makes West Virginia a great place to visit makes it an even better place to live and work,” said Secretary Chelsea Ruby of the West Virginia Department of Tourism. “With remote work becoming a permanent option for more and more professionals, we’re excited to introduce them to the blend of adventure and serenity that makes life in West Virginia a permanent vacation. 

Twilley still gets teary-eyed thinking about how Brad and Alys Smith not only supported the idea financially but believed in it. That’s not how the story always goes. 

Brad Smith was born and raised in Kenova, a town to the west of Huntington of about 3,000 people where his father served as mayor. “Together, Alys and I set forth a vision to create a program that would allow West Virginia to capitalize on workforce trends by leveraging our incredible outdoor recreation assets,” Smith said at the announcement of the Ascend WV program. “As West Virginians, we ascend mountains every day. Here, we’re inviting remote workers from across the country to join us in our ascent to rise to new heights, together.”

Smith sees West Virginia as a startup state, and he often talks about how 75 percent of recent graduates want to be entrepreneurs. He’s familiar with the quest to grow what you have and who you are, starting in sales at PepsiCo and rising to CEO at Intuit, where he served 11 years, growing it into a global company, with growth that doubled revenue. 

He graduated from Marshall University, but he has affinity for the mission of both Marshall and WVU, telling the Chambers College’s Business Magazine before the gift was announced: “I have the same passion that West Virginia University and Marshall University share, which is creating an education for the next generation to effectively compete in this digital 21st century, while also reimagining West Virginia as the startup state, so we have the entrepreneurial talent graduating and building the world’s next big companies.” 

Two people walk down a sidewalk in Shepherdstown.A woman runs past a church near Shepherdstown. An adult and child paddle board in a river past an old brick bridge support near Shepherdstown.
Shepherdstown is one of three initial locations that have been selected for the Ascend WV program, which recruits remote workers to the state to enjoy outdoor recreation and the slower pace of life (Photographs by Jenny Shephard). 

NATURE’S PLAYGROUND 

As the remote worker program launched, the federal government announced the formation of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, raising the profile of an already beloved part of the state in Fayetteville. 

Twilley said a major part of the program is the deveopment of outdoor assets. The state is royalty in rafting and whitewater kayaking – with 2,023 miles of whitewater, the greatest density of any U.S. state, according to American Whitewater data analyzed by the WVU Mountain Hydrology Lab and could become as visible for mountain biking and climbing. 

“People come from around the country to live in West Virginia for paddling,” said Rich Edwards, outdoor recreation infrastructure specialist at the Smith OEDC. “We’re going to make that happen in other sports as well.” 

He wants to make it so that, “When people are applying to colleges and getting ready to go to school, that there’s folks who are looking at West Virginia, and they’re applying here just like they’re applying to a school in Utah or Colorado because I know their parents want them to go to a good school and they really want to go someplace that’s going to be cool to live.” 

When you move to Morgantown, there’s a point where someone mentions that you should visit the Hemlock Trail, a mossy ramble that meanders between rocks and creeks and is part of the WVU Forest near Cooper’s Rock State Forest. There would be complicated instructions, or a friend serving as guide. There are places like that all over the state that could be more easily accessible through providing more wayfinding. Where should you park? Where would you start your paddling? Where would you take out? 

A limiting factor to recreation is often awareness of where to access the rivers and boulders or finding it difficult to bike to the rail trail, which Edwards says is the backbone of a network of trails that can one day connect to the rest of Morgantown with the assistance of the Smith OEDC.

Edwards was married at Blackwater Falls and has worked on building trails for decades with the International Mountain Biking Association. He thinks that making the state’s beauty more accessible could seal the deal for future residents, working remotely or not. 

“Every time that someone comes here as a tourist, that’s the potential for a future resident,” Edwards said. “If we can hook that person, if they can have that realization during that dinner they’re having after having a great day outside, they’re like, ‘Wow, I can wake up here on Monday rather than drive five hours.’” 

Edwards says his part of the project is still in the reporting out phase to communities, which he emphasizes are the main drivers of change, and he’s just there to assist. He is looking at places where there is existing infrastructure and capacity to have the greatest impact on outdoor recreation. 

Rich Edwards works to improve a trail with a group of people.Two women walking their bikes near the a media covered with flowers in downtown Lewisburg.
Rich Edwards works with members of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association to improve trails near Morgantown (Photograph by Brian Persinger). Lewisburg is the latest city in West Virginia to accept applications from remote workers for the Ascend WV program.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA 

In September, the state opened remote worker applications for Lewisburg while also welcoming the first group of 53 workers and their families to Morgantown. They are relocating from 21 states and the District of Columbia and as far away as Berlin, with the greatest number coming from California. They include Matthew Worden, a native West Virginian, who is a system architect at Danfoss, an engineering firm. 

“I see an amazing opportunity for West Virginia to become an oasis in the mountains for idea exchanges, incubation, and serenity,” Worden said. “As people move away from the coast and large cities, West Virginia makes an obvious destination. The Ascend program represents the needed infrastructure to support the state in taking advantage of this opportunity. My family and I want to help represent this program and bring even more growth, excitement, and adventure to West Virginia.” 

As the program moves forward, Twilley is leveraging the program’s achievements to grow funding. Smith is talking up the state’s potential. 

Over the summer, Smith was a guest on the Mountaineer Media podcast, which speaks to West Virginians around the world and was created by alumni C.J. Harvey, BSJ ’17, Mason Jack, BMdS ’18, and Cooper Simmerman, BS ’17, Finance, and MBA. Smith explained how it felt to witness the outpouring of interest in the state. 

“Sometimes when we’re sitting in our own mountains, we can be frustrated with the current state,” he said. “And there’s a reason to be frustrated. Everyone can see the opportunities, and we all want to be a part of making it better. 

“But then when you actually look at us through somebody else’s eyes and you actually see how many people were interested in West Virginia and how many people were so excited that they’re willing to relocate their families to move to our community ... it gives you just this sense of pride of ‘Hey, there’s something here.’” 

Learn more at oedc.wvu.edu and ascendwv.com