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WV Legislative Interim Report: Mountaineer Trail Network Authority explained

WV Press Staff Report

CHARLESTON, W.Va – The West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Economic Development and Tourism got an update from the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority on Sunday, during the first day of the October Interim Session.

Mountaineer Trail Network Authority Executive Director Andrew Walker spoke to the committee.

“We are the recreation authority in the State of West Virginia,” Walker said. “[We’re] an economic development authority that was created by the State Legislature in 2019. We’re currently operating under an ARC (Appalachian Regional Commission) power grant – that’s a three-year grant and we’re in the final year of it right now.”

According to Walker, the ARC is scheduled to expire in Oct. 2024.

“We are launching five specific outdoor travel destinations for 2024,” Walker said. “Those are currently Big Bear Lake Trail Center, which is in Preston County; the Cheat River Water Trail, which is in Preston and Tucker Counties; Snowshoe’s Back Country Trail in Pocahontas (County); Mountwood Park, which is in Wood County; and then the Camp 70 Trail System, which is located in Tucker County.”

Walker explained that the “three pillars of purpose” are seeking to “develop collaborative relationships,” finding the “most diverse outdoor recreation opportunities,” and to better the communities which they serve.

Walker cited Downstream Strategies as an example of a successful partnership between the authority and a private organization, noting, “They’ve looked at targeted-marketing, they’ve looked at revenues that have been generated in each of these communities that pertain to outdoor recreation – specifically biking and paddling. Then they were able to put together these five destinations for launch.”

At the conclusion of Walker’s presentation, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, asked if the soon-to-launch Mountaineer Trail Network Authority’s website will have access to the commercial spots produced by the state’s Department of Tourism.

“Yes,” Walker replied. “We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel – tourism has already been doing a great job.”

Jim Christie of Civil and Environmental Consultants, Inc., then spoke briefly about Tourism Development projects associated with the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority, saying, “We are project driven.”

“Whether we do municipal, county, or state development, we are project driven,” Christie noted. “If you hire us to look at a region, we will create what works best within that regional community.”

Next before the Committee was Adam Hodges, who provided an update regarding the Community & Economic Development Extension (EDC) Service of West Virginia State University (WVSU).

“Over at the EDC we have a provision of office spaces, and it’s led to success for many entrepreneurs and startups,” Hodges told committee members. “A key indicator of that success is the occupancy rate of those spaces. Over the past year the occupancy rate of the EDC’s spaces has consistently remained at or above 90%. This high rate underscores the attractiveness and the value of the professional spaces we offer.”

Hodges also cited the EDC sound and production studio space, saying, “They’ve proven to be invaluable assets for content creators and media professionals.”

“In the past year alone, over 50 video projects and 30 audio productions have been within the studios,” Hodges noted. “These numbers highlight the EDC’s role in facilitating the creative process and enabling clients to bring their multimedia projects to life.”

Robbie Morris, executive director of the Randolph County Development Authority, was the next to address the committee, and delivered a presentation pertaining to the local Economic Development (LED) Grant Program.

“The LED is to support county or multi-county economic development efforts through matching grants,” Morris said. “The program is administered through the West Virginia Department of Economic Development.”

According to Morris, the LED’s purpose is to bolster the ability of municipal economic development authorities to develop and enact economic development projects within their communities.

“You’ve heard quite a bit this evening about how different economic development organizations are working with local government and organizations to enhance economic opportunities throughout the State of West Virginia,” Morris said. “When we look at economic development, we typically look at it as a three-legged stool.”

Those three legs, according to Morris, are business development, community development, and workforce development. 

“What you’ll find throughout the economic development authorities in the state is rarely are there two that are alike,” Morris noted. “Some vary in capacity. Some vary in the number of counties that each organization represents. Some get very involved in infrastructure development.”

Morris said that the LED grant program is one of the primary funding sources for all economic development authorities. In order to be eligible for the program, Morris added, authorities must be the lead development entity with their county, they must provide a written activity report, a list of buildings and land, be active in state economic development conferences, and meet a host of other requirements. 

“In addition to the LED grant, not only does the state provide funding, but the development authorities are required to provide dollar-for-dollar matching as well,” Morris noted. “The majority of that funding is matched usually through county commission appropriations.”

At the conclusion of Morris’ presentation, Del. Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley, asked, “Did all 55 counties qualify (for LED grants) and get funded?”

Morris said that while the “vast majority” of counties did qualify, he believes that there are some counties within the state that do not have economic development authorities, and therefore do not qualify for funding.

The Joint Standing Committee on Economic Development and Tourism will meet again during next month’s Interim Session, scheduled for Nov. 12 – 14 in Wheeling.