Downtown St. Paul. The Western Front Hotel is the large building at left. Photo courtesy of St. Paul Tomorrow.

St. Paul, Virginia, population 866, covers less than two square miles of rural Southwest Virginia. It has no local paper and its high schoolers commute to a neighboring town for school.

But in the first full week of October, the town will welcome roughly 100 other state and federal government officials, regional leaders and economic development experts for the annual conference of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The guest list includes Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“It’s probably one of the best things that’s happened to us in my lifetime,” St. Paul Mayor Kenneth Holbrook, a native of the town, said. “We’re just a small speck on the far end of the state.”

“It’s probably one of the best things that’s happened to us in my lifetime.”

St. Paul Mayor Kenneth Holbrook

Over the past two decades, helped by a mosaic of grants, fundraisers and private investments, St. Paul has pushed to transform itself from a wilted coal mining town to a rural retreat and outdoor recreation hub. It now boasts a boutique hotel, brewery, conference space and easy access to a state park and outdoor trails. Attendees of the conference – which Governor Northam is co-hosting – will use or visit most of those amenities come October.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

“This is all with an eye toward helping these folks showcase a great product that they have,” Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer said. “They’ve got a great restaurant, got a great hotel, but they need help having folks aware of … where they are and dispelling some of the myths that they’re hard to access.”

The town, a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Richmond, is also closer to seven other state capitals than its own, according to computations by Brian Brettschneider, an Alaskan scientist and amateur cartographer. 

“Southwest Virginia is much closer for West Virginia, for Kentucky, for Tennessee, even Alabama and some of those other states that are down there than, say, somewhere located in Central Virginia,” said Amanda Love, associate director of human resources and communications for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “So the location is actually more accessible for a lot more of these Appalachia states than some of the other locations in [past conferences].”

The Appalachian Regional Commission was launched by the federal government in 1965 to spur economic growth and innovation across the 420 counties that fall within Appalachia. Since then, according to its website, the agency has pumped more than $4.5 billion in development grants into development projects in the region.

Cassidy Rasnick, Northam’s deputy secretary of commerce and trade, said the agency hosts its annual conference in the state of the governor currently co-chairing the commission; Northam is the 2021 co-chair. (Gayle Manchin, the former first lady of West Virginia and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, is the current federal co-chair.)

Beyond unveiling a four-year strategic plan for the entire commission, this year’s conference–which will include events in Abingdon as well as St. Paul–will focus leadership, entrepreneurship and the outdoor recreation industry as key ingredients for revitalizing Appalachian communities.

“One of the things we’re excited to highlight is the…emphasis that St. Paul has put on outdoor recreation and some of the investments” that both the state and ARC have made in it, Rasnick said.

“You’ll see a place that looks very different from what it looked like about 10 or 15 years ago,” she said.

St. Paul was incorporated in 1911, but Stewart said it began developing long before that. The Clinch River, which runs through the southern end of town, brought some people there. Others came to work on the railroad eventually built through its center. By the mid-20th century, a huge chunk of St. Paul’s economy hinged on the coal mines that opened up in the landscape around it. 

“And then in the 80s, people started moving out of town, businesses started waning,” Stewart said. “Because we had a four-lane highway to Bristol, and people had money and they were taking it someplace else to spend. That was kind of a downturn for us.”

In the late 90s, Stewart said, the town’s leaders decided to make the region’s rolling mountains and the Clinch River–a hotspot for rare aquatic creatures–a central part of their revitalization efforts. 

“Outdoor recreation is a big part of our…quality of life,” Stewart said. “Our area is beautiful, so we think people should come here and live.”

That tack seems to be working. The town now sits beside Spearhead Trails, a 600-mile trail network for ATV riders, hikers and horseback riders created roughly a decade ago through local, state and Appalachian Regional Commission funding. Two outdoor gear rental companies have followed. The launch of Clinch River State Park this summer–Virginia’s first river-based park–could generate even more business. 

St. Paul’s thimble-sized downtown, meanwhile, has gotten a “facelift,” in Mayor Holbrook’s words. The Western Front Hotel, formerly a blighted building, opened in 2018 as a boutique, 30-room lodging with its own restaurant. (Stewart said the name reflects a rougher chapter of St. Paul’s history, back in the 1930s and 40s, when that part of town was deemed as brutal as the Western Front of World War I.)

There’s also a brewpub called Sugar Hill Brewing Company and a coworking space run by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Once renovations to the historic Lyric Theater finish, St. Paul will have a performance venue that includes even more conference space. 

State and ARC funds have powered much of that development; the hotel and theater each got $500,000 grants from the latter agency. Conference goers will see those investments in action as they sample the town’s restaurants, fill the hotel to capacity (some will stay in Abingdon) and rev its ATVs.

“I’ve heard the figure that maybe there would be as many as 30 ATVs in that party,” Holbrook said of the conference group. “We have several [driving through town] on any given day, especially on the weekend, but nothing like that crowd.”

As to the risks of bringing so many people to a region with surging COVID-19 infection rates, Love said that Northam’s administration is still finalizing safety protocols for in-person attendees. But the protocols, she said, will include “masks, testing requirements, those types of things.” There will also be a full day of virtual programming; roughly 800 more attendees have registered for that portion.

Just preparing for 100-odd guests has been keeping St. Paul leaders busy. Holbrook said that he’s had 20 or 30 people helping him clean brush and trash from roadsides, order flags of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s 13 member states to hang downtown and generally tidy up. He’s also put in a request to the Department of Transportation to let the town shut down its main street, to make getting around easier for all the visitors.

What about parking?

“We’re kind of strapped for parking, but we’ll figure out something for them,” the mayor said. 

Sarah Wade is an award-winning freelance reporter and writer based in Bristol, a city straddling Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. She previously worked for the Bristol Herald Courier. Contact her at swade316@gmail.com.

Sarah Wade

Sarah Wade is an award-winning freelance reporter and writer based in Bristol, a city straddling Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. She previously worked for the Bristol Herald Courier. Contact...