$25M gift to WVU fosters flywheel effect for W.Va. outdoor economy

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$25M gift to WVU fosters flywheel effect for W.Va. outdoor economy
Cyclists are among the most prolific of outdoor recreation enthusiasts visiting W.Va. (Photo: Munbaik Cycling Clothing)

The Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative continues to build momentum one year after the couple’s transformational $25 million gift to West Virginia University.

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The namesake office the Smiths created is starting to see momentum from a concept the Smiths have instilled in the team—"the flywheel effect," in which continuous effort compounds until movement forward becomes second nature.

The gift by Brad D. and Alys Smith to advance the state’s economy by cultivating talent, developing world-class recreational infrastructure, supporting community development, and expanding outdoor educational opportunities is the center point for this effect.

“The combination of these efforts will create a flywheel effect that can redefine West Virginia as one of the best states to live, work, and play, especially for those who love the outdoors,” Brad Smith said.

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“Working collaboratively with leaders across the state will spread this momentum through West Virginia’s 55 counties. With this flywheel effect, we will continue to see success from these efforts five, 10, 20 years down the line and beyond.”

The Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative is laying a foundation of strategic initiatives and unique partnerships throughout the state that will benefit a robust outdoor economy in the long term by both retaining the state’s talent and attracting new residents to call the Mountain State their home.


Talent attraction and retention

The pathway to instill this flywheel effect allowed the Collaborative to enter a strategic partnership with the West Virginia Department of Tourism to develop Ascend WV, a large-scale talent attraction and retention program.

The rise in remote work and digital culture has led younger generations to value place and lifestyle above location for a career. The partnership recognized the unparalleled quality of life that West Virginia can provide for these talented individuals. Ascend WV is designed to not only attract remote workers but support them as they relocate to West Virginia in pursuit of a better quality of life, purposeful connection with their chosen communities, and an outdoor-driven lifestyle.

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Since the inception of the program, the Collaborative and the tourism department selected three locations for Ascend WV, with the first cohort of members already making the move to Morgantown and selections in process for Ascend Lewisburg. The third location to launch, Shepherdstown, will begin accepting applications later this year.

WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research completed an initial analysis prior to the launch of Ascend WV. This first phase of the remote talent and attraction program estimates at least $182.6 million in economic impact, and beyond the accepted remote workers, an additional 594 jobs in the state.

As the flywheel continues to spin, Ascend WV plans to add at least two more communities to this innovative program as a success within the first three towns come to fruition.


Development of West Virginia’s youth

Outdoor youth initiatives are also a part of the flywheel effect. As the Collaborative looks toward the future and develops youth initiatives around outdoor recreation in West Virginia, Science Adventure School continues to act on its goal to have an impact on every 6th grader in the state. Recently, a Moonshot Grant was awarded to pilot the expansion of a mobilized Science Adventure School, which allows the School to reach more students that may not otherwise have access to the program. This adventure school programming uses the "Science Behind the Sport" curriculum, where students in an outdoor classroom are actively engaged in innovative educational experiences through adventure sports. Whether they’re calculating the maximum speed of a zipline ride or using their understanding of trajectories to improve their archery skills, Science Behind the Sport ignites a passion for learning that students will carry forward.

The Collaborative’s youth initiatives caught the interest of the Youth Cycling Coalition, another partnership of outdoor-minded leaders, and the organization chose Morgantown to pilot its joint programming to foster a love for cycling in West Virginia’s youth. In return, the Collaborative is the community liaison for this Coalition. The team conducts research on participation and provides access to the "Science Behind the Sport" curriculum for additional programming. The partnership with the Coalition has led to a $60,000 donation from Rad Power Bikes to build a Project Bike Tech classroom in Monongalia County Schools, which will introduce students to the many career pathways within the outdoor industry, as well as prepare them for a variety of launching points in the workforce.

As the Collaborative’s youth programming grows, it will touch the lives of West Virginians throughout their most formative years from elementary through high school. Developing STEM principles in a unique environment, fostering a love for the outdoors, and instilling a desire for recreation can provide the steppingstones for West Virginia's next generation of leaders.


Outdoor recreation infrastructure and community development

The Collaborative’s programming relies on the state’s mountainous canvas to continue to attract a strong workforce, foster innovation, and retain West Virginia’s youth to create the fabric for thriving communities throughout West Virginia.

It is no secret that the state’s rugged topography is known to meet the demands of experienced outdoor enthusiasts. However, to compete with other areas that leverage their outdoor resources for economic development, West Virginia needs to create better access to its outdoor assets. The development of additional beginner and intermediate mountain biking and hiking trails, and easy-to-find destinations for climbing and access points for paddling will allow West Virginia to be more competitive in community and economic development.

To do this, WVU brought on Richard Edwards to lead the development of outdoor recreation infrastructure and provide communities with project development, management, technical assistance, and training to build trails and develop other assets to enhance outdoor recreation opportunities. For example, Edwards is leading the development of the first three miles of a proposed shared-use trail plan on WVU property.

“This is the launching point for a larger trail initiative with WVU and the City of Morgantown,” Edwards said. “This first trail provides examples for future trail development and research opportunities that help fulfill the University’s mission to support communities across the entire state.”

Currently working in over 11 communities across the state with even more in discussion, the collaborative looks forward to providing further support throughout West Virginia. The collaborative is eager to help communities that are interested in harnessing their outdoor recreation assets further by developing partnerships and assisting local leaders and groups to activate their assets.


The Team

As a result of the tremendous growth and scope of work the office has undertaken, two executive leadership roles tackle focused initiatives and programs.

Greg Corio, the Assistant Vice President for Outdoor Youth Advocacy and Initiatives, oversees initiatives such as Science Behind the Sport, Science Adventure School and acts as the liaison between the Youth Cycling Coalition and other associated partnerships. Corio’s 18 years at West Virginia University has focused on outdoor recreation and education starting as the founder of Adventure WV and evolving into the vision for what the Collaborative is today.

In January 2020, Danny Twilley joined WVU to help found the Collaborative. Twilley serves as the Assistant Vice President of Economic, Community, and Asset Development and handles initiatives pertaining to the outdoor economy, which include talent attraction and retention such as Ascend WV, outdoor community development, outdoor recreation asset development, business, and workforce development. Both roles leverage the intellectual capital of WVU, focusing on using research that tells West Virginia’s story while highlighting and acting on areas for improvement in these sectors.

The efforts of the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative embody the Smiths’ vision of “55 counties strong” by creating ongoing momentum for the growing opportunities within the state’s outdoor economy. Capitalizing on West Virginia’s assets to enhance what is already plentiful in outdoor recreation positions the state as a desired place to live, work and play. The program’s early impact shows that the Smiths’ vision and gift will be life-changing for West Virginians. The Collaborative’s efforts are just beginning to push the flywheel forward, and will continue to make an impact for generations to come.


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