Excitement is building around the new Elk River Trail State Park in central West Virginia, especially downstream along the 30-mile corridor between the park and the state capital at Charleston.
Plans for museums, breweries, and a cycling park are all on the table, according to developers and local business owners who are gearing up for a post-COVID-19 economic boost.
To include 72 miles of river and adjacent rail-bed in Clay, Braxton, and Kanawha counties, state officials say the park is expected to be a game-changer. That's welcome news in a rural area that's decline was punctuated by a devastating flood in 2016.
Planners for E.L. Robinson Engineering, which was hired to assess the development of the corridor near the park, are excited about its future. Project lead Todd Schoolcraft and landscape architect Gracetyn Carper are coincidentally from the area and ready to welcome the growth.
The firm was contracted to complete two assessments, Schoolcraft said—one for the Kanawha County Commission and another for the Town of Clendenin and the non-profit development organization "25045: A New Clendenin."
“The Kanawha County Commissioners, and particularly Ben Salango, really wanted to do something for the Town of Clendenin to help with the recovery from the flood,” he explained.
"We’ve done a study of the area from Queen Shoals to Falling Rock, helping get the town pre-positioned for the rail-trail, and we’ve helped them look at what kind of economic development they need to be working on to get ready for the new state park."
One of the key economic factors for development along the corridor is Interstate 79, which parallels the river and park. Five interstate exits are located along the corridor between the park and the mouth of the Elk River at Charleston; another four access the park itself.
“Obviously, every place that a visitor may come off the interstate, they’ll be able to come off and get to a trailhead," and Schoolcraft says that's a good economic formula.
"People may organize a triathlon. There may need to be more kayak liveries, and perhaps they’ll want to combine with mountain bike liveries.”
There are going to be many opportunities for investors between Sutton and Charleston, he said.
Read also: New state park will attract business to lower Elk River
Working in lockstep with Schoolcraft, Gracetyn Carper grew up on the Elk and is particularly enthused about introducing visitors to the landscape.
"While on the trail, there are many beautiful views and things to explore, like rock outcrops and abri, and water cascades after rainfall, native vegetation, and wildlife, which all contribute to an amazing experience,” she said.
“While growing up, I loved being surrounded by nature. Kayaking and fishing on the Elk River, exploring the woods, caves and waterfalls were, and still are, my favorite activities.
"Having a rail-trail that is next to the river combines all of these things into one.”
The firm was also charged by the Kanawha County Commission with seeking out a site for a tourism destination in the area.
Several kinds of attractions were considered, Schoolcraft said, though, eventually, the county decided to seek a site for a BMX bicycle-racing track—something that would be good for the whole community, particularly the area’s youth.
Ultimately, the commission selected the old Elk Refinery site at Falling Rock, he said.
“This BMX bicycle racetrack is actually good for kids all the way up through college-age to compete,” he said.
"We considered many possible sites, including the old Hoover High School, but, per FEMA, it is in the floodway, so that limited the site."
There are many more plans and projects in motion, and Schoolcraft also has visions of how some of the moving parts may come together.
“For example, someone might rent a mountain bike ride it to Queen Shoals, drop it off at a livery, get in a kayak, and go paddle to Clendenin.”
He said there are so many economic development offshoots that will come out of this that should be considered. “We’ll need gas stations, B&Bs, and AirB&Bs. There will be historical markers and guides needed, perhaps. It will quite simply be a really good thing for the area.”
To the casual observer, it may look like there’s not much happening in Clendenin, near the downstream end of the park. Appearances can be deceiving. Several things are percolating in the area, and pandemic or not, there is a core of people in the area who are working tirelessly to bring more business and prosperity in the area.
Steven Grau, who owns Elk River Get-a-Way, has been providing river recreation for several seasons for tourists, and he says he’s is raring and ready to go for 2020.
“I’ve been developing my business for years,” he said. “I’ve been serving groups from all over the country, and I had invested quite a bit for improvements for this year.”
Grau’s business provides kayaking and innertube rentals along with youth-sized kayaks, floating islands, floating coolers, along with many other perks and options.
He has also combined forces with some other local businesspeople.
“We will be working with the local bakery-restaurant called Savor the Flavor to create options for box lunches for our guests,” he said. For example, there might be West Virginia pepperoni rolls, a drink, and a dessert that they order when they book the trip.
“We have serious fishermen, too,” Grau said. “A lot of people don’t think about the Elk for fishing, but in places, the river is 35 feet deep. I call it the Muskie Channel, and people come from all over the Midwest to fish here.”
As the plans for the new state park take shape, more business will doubtless begin to come into being. Sarah and B.J. Williams, for example, have opened the Small Town Market, now the only grocery store in Clay, which is located midway along the route of the park.
A craft-brewery may also become part of the revitalization. Matt and Nichole Holbert, owners of Bricks & Barrels restaurant in Charleston, have purchased a building in Clendenin and are said to be in the planning stages for a brewery to be built in the old Chase bank building on Main Street.
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