The Your Town workshop in Southwest Virginia was coordinated by Laura Belleville, Director of Conservation for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). The workshop focused on bringing together residents and businesses along the Appalachian Trail in southwest Virginia to reinforce their linkage to the Trail and to each other for regional planning and heritage tourism. Although for decades Trail managers have sought to create a wilderness experience along the Trail, there is now a perceived need to connect the towns along the Trail to the hiking resource (part of Benton MacKaye’s original vision).
The workshop was held at the Mountain Lake Hotel west of Blacksburg, Virginia. The historic hotel, best known as the setting for the movie “Dirty Dancing,” is perched on a mountaintop, is very secluded, and was an ideal setting for a Your Town workshop.
The workshop brought together participants from the southwestern Virginia communities of Damascus, Groseclose, Burkes Garden, Pearisburg, and Catawba as well as other areas along the Trail, including Buchanan and Front Royal. It featured an excellent series of speakers. Don Chance, planning director of Baker City, OR, and formerly with the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Virginia Tech, provided inspiration on how to develop trails and trail tours as well as advice on how to build in rural areas without losing community character and natural resource conservation. Hannah Twaddell reported on a recent study of the nexus between transportation planning and smart growth in rural America, providing an overview of the different types of rural communities and the issues they face. Kristen Peppel of Asheville, NC, talked about green infrastructure development and Carolyn Brackett with the National Trust provided inspiration and instruction in heritage tourism. Examples of trail successes in Pennsylvania with the Great Allegheny Passage and Trail Towns program and Florida with the Florida National Scenic Trail and Gateway Communities program were presented as models that southwest Virginia might emulate. Tom Horsch, business entrepreneur from Damascus, Virginia, gave personal testimony of the success that can be achieved when local people use the opportunity that trails provide to build business and tourism.
Several very positive outcomes can be anticipated from the workshop. In the short term, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and its partners will be identifying some “Appalachian Rambles,” 3–4 day excursions on the Appalachian Trail that integrate stays at local B&Bs. These could be highlighted in a regional marketing piece. The ATC plans to schedule meetings with stakeholders in southwest Virginia to build on the workshop and design other rambles. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy plans to continue working toward a recognition program for trailside communities and will follow-up with Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center to explore conducting assessments in collaboration with Trailside Towns. Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff will work with local communities that want to get involved in green infrastructure planning, continuing a process that is ongoing in the New River Valley. Ultimately, the ATC will be working with the communities of the region to develop a stronger regional identity.
Following the workshop the New River Valley area worked with Giles County leadership to develop a tourism plan that used innovative design principles to attract tourism. These principles stemmed out of workshop discussions.
-Excerpted from Your Town: Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, Update, Fall, 2008