Southern West Virginia tourism highlights the haves and the have-nots

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Tourism is a major part of southern West Virginia’s transition away from a coal-based economy.

The success of coalfield tourism seems to start and end with a network of ATV trails, but it’s what’s in the middle that creates the challenges.

For $60 per person, Keith Gibson offers tourists visiting Matewan, West Virginia an airboat ride on the Tug River, a designated flat-water trail in West Virginia.

“I worked in the coal mines,” Gibson said. “So I had to relearn myself. Everything I do now is so different. Nothing like a coal mine.

With headphones and microphones to drown out the noise, Gibson tells his passengers tales of coal mine wars and the forbidden love sparking Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy’s feud that started just on the other side. from the Kentucky shore.

Gibson said many come to his airboat tour for a respite from the sweltering dust of the area’s popular ATV trails. But he said traveling to the remote border town could lead to a row with the state legislature.

“We have to work really hard to get people to drive those extra 100 miles of winding roads to get here,” Gibson said. “Then we have to work hard to accommodate them when they are here.”

Gibson said the legislature must consider the challenges border counties face, with prices often lower than a nearby Kentucky bridge. He said he was on the verge of an economic recovery from the pandemic, when inflation hit.

“They need to have a place to stay, they need to have something to eat, but they don’t need to take an airboat ride,” Gibson said. “They don’t need to have a t-shirt.”

Jamie Cantrell knows border battles. His Matewan Trailhead Bar and Grill is just half a mile from the Hatfield Hideout Cabin and RV Camp in McCarr, Kentucky, which also interests him. She said the growing tourism industry here needs a lot more help from the state.

“Do stuff with the roads to help people get here,” Cantrell said. “Complete the King Coal Highway. We always need more housing. There are people buying houses and putting them on AirBnBs left and right. We could use more food places. Politicians need to come to Matewan and see what we have to offer and try to get us grants to help restore a lot of these old buildings.

With the whistle of ATVs in the middle of downtown Matewan, an old coal bank building has been converted into a Mine Wars museum. The museum’s co-founder and board member, Wilma Steele, said the organization remains dedicated to correcting revisionist history.

“When I found out that the United Mine Workers, in 1920, offered equal pay to blacks and whites and that their members did not discriminate against their brothers because of culture or speech or any of that, it struck me. blew me away,” Steele said. “We don’t have that history. It’s not in the textbooks. »

Steele said Matewan’s growing tourism industry stems from a new town leadership vote and a united community effort.

“The more you work as a team and around town to do something, the stronger you become,” Steele said. “The Mine Wars Museum, from the very beginning, has been this group that works here and cares about development.”

A museum not far from Matewan, the Kimball World War I Memorial in McDowell County, is isolated and somewhat neglected. Curator Clara Thompson said it was the first and now the only remaining memorial to African-American veterans of the Great War.

“Believe it or not, we had over 1,500 troops to go to World War I from McDowell County,” Thompson said. “When the soldiers returned from the war, they asked the county to build a memorial, because the white soldiers had also asked for a memorial and so they got it. They sought to place it in the county seat of Welch but there was none. That’s how we ended up here in Kimball.

Filled with outstanding exhibits, open part-time, and struggling to maintain board members and infrastructure, the privately funded museum is working to make ends meet with a community center downstairs offering room rentals. and kitchens. Thompson said she receives national and even global visitors, but locals seem unaware of their own history.

“Why don’t the schools bring the children here and visit this museum? It’s part of their history,” Thompson said. “We could use funds to do more advertising, put out more brochures and things like that. But we don’t have funding and most grants ask for matching funds. Where are we going to get it from? It would be so nice if the Legislature already had that money available for the construction of these historic sites, so that they could do their job.

The local representative in the legislature, Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, agreed the state needed to do more.

“You’re right, it’s not open all the time. I don’t think there’s a full-time employee,” Evans said. “We still have a large African American population here in Kimball on the hill behind us. Up the road to North Fork and Keystone you will find large African American populations.

Evans said helping with matching grant funds to improve history-related tourism was an impetus for the legislature creating the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission. Evans said the commission should help strengthen declining coal communities like Kimball’s infrastructure and help their memorial become a desired destination. But he hasn’t received the funding he needs to get started.

“It should have been underway immediately. The governor said he had to fund this off the back of the budget,” Evans said. “We have a lot of backside but we haven’t funded it. I’ve always been told it could be up to $250 million. This would be money that anyone wishing to write a grant could withdraw from us for matching funds.

Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael is chairman of the Coalfield Grant Commission. He said that with much of his effort lately to bring big business to West Virginia, he hasn’t formed a commission, uncovered funding, and has no timeline. But he said he was committed to the process.

“We will be very active and make sure to get input from local groups and facilitate growth in those areas,” Carmichael said.

In the development of tourism in southern West Virginia, the “haves and have-nots” currently appear to be separated by varying degrees of private investment, community teamwork, infrastructure development, government assistance – and of the continued transition from a coal-based economy.

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