Skip to main content
  • Home
  • Stories
  • Trail Mix: The economic development plan that centers on outdoor recreation

Trail Mix: The economic development plan that centers on outdoor recreation

Mountain State

As communities across the U.S. vie for economic development opportunities, West Virginia University is banking on one of the Mountain State’s greatest assets — the wonderful and often wild terrain that makes outdoor adventure an exciting proposition.

To do that, WVU has hired a trifecta of outdoor recreation experts to work with communities to build trails, capacity and other outdoor recreation amenities that will connect area residents with hiking and biking opportunities that may be off the beaten path, but not far enough from it to discourage users from taking themselves outside.

As part of the Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, they are in the field almost constantly, assisting communities with visioning, developing and managing trails that will provide access near where people live and of a quality that ensures West Virginia’s future reputation for high-quality outdoor recreation.

A part of the OEDC, Danny Twilley and team only go to communities that ask for their help. Communities like Fayetteville/Oak Hill and Lewisburg have taken that leap, and they’re picking up speed as they move toward creating trail systems that will provide several benefits. And while the trails attract visitors, Twilley, the assistant vice president of economic, community and asset development, believes that they will also create healthier communities that will attract potential homeowners and give young residents a reason to stay and work at home, too.

Outdoor adventure assets are high on the list of things people of all ages are looking for when they decide where they want to spend their lives, and Twilley is certain that by creating “anchors” like trails in areas that have high potential and the possibility of high impact, people will create their own connections. “If we strategically look at these anchors, then we’re looking at places that don’t have trails or need improved trails and do it with intentionality,” he said.  

Coupling those trails with other assets like whitewater kayaking/rafting or skiing or rock climbing, creates a unique experience that can support community centers in a multi-tiered strategy that includes highlighting some other natural resources — the culture and people of Appalachia. Twilley starts with asking those longtime residents what they want to do, what they want to be, how they want to be seen. 

The New River Gorge area has seen several years of growth in the outdoor adventure sector, but with the designation of the New River Gorge National Park, the increase in recreation-focused visitors has been “massive” and is expected to at least double over the next few years. 

Four trail projects with an investment of $2.24 million will “pace the influx of visitors near community businesses, attract events and improve the quality of the living, working and playing experience that is vital for the resiliency of Fayette County,” according to the Fayette Trail Coalition plan.  

Edwards said the Fayetteville community has developed a lot of local buy-in, including $1.5 million in funding via a U.S. Department of Interior grant to the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority to develop new and improve current natural surface trails and trailheads at Needleseye Park and Fayetteville Town Park. A paved pumptrack, a circular loop with rollers and berms, that requires no pedaling or pushing when it’s ridden correctly, at Fayetteville Town Park will be the first of its type in the state and likely to be on the ground before Lewisburg or Morgantown.

A lot of our trails are really hard and challenging, Twilley said, and that translates into trails that don’t provide access or opportunity to most of the population. “Building trails that are integrated into the community and provide a spectrum of challenge can be more expensive to build; however, that expense is validated by the benefits of having trails accessible to many more of the residents and visitors. 

“We can have a healthier population,” he continued. “There’s a lot of great research; when people have access to trails within a mile of their homes, they are more likely to exercise 45 minutes more per week. We know that it can have positive physical benefits and we know it can have positive psychological benefits. For us it’s a holistic approach in terms of why access is so, so critical.” 

Elkins is high on Twilley’s list of communities with possibilities. It’s also an example of community organizing around a trail project that’s taken leg work to identify assets, get in touch with property owners and write grants to get the project off the ground.  

“They did all that in just over a year, which is lightning speed,” he said. Elkins, Twilley said, has a great downtown area with art and culture, as well as being the western gateway to the Monongahela National Forest. 

Lewisburg, too, has the basis for major success, according to Twilley. With a beautiful downtown area, great food options, a vibrant arts community, including Greenbrier Valley Theatre, one of “America’s Coolest Towns” (Budget Travel magazine 2011) has the potential to be the “red carpet to residency” that makes townies out of tourists.  

The final layer of the OEDC’s plan is to address one of West Virginia’s leading economic challenges — population loss. Twilley said the state’s population has decreased from just more than 2 million in 1952 to 1.783 million in 2023, so the goal is not only to attract people who understand and appreciate West Virginia and its culture, but to offer the people who grew up here an invitation to stay home, if you will.  

“I think we can keep our talent here and if we can do that, I think the economic prosperity and potential social fabric that is so deeply rooted in this state can have a resurgence of what’s possible,” he said. That means changing the mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. 

We can have great trails and a great downtown and that is the ultimate goal.

— Danny Twilley 

Keep Reading

Photo Essay

Keep Reading: February in Review


Keep Reading: Feared and Revered: All Eyes On AI


Keep Reading: Riding the Waves

Browse all stories.