ST. PAUL — Downtown St. Paul filled with the buzzing of all-terrain vehicle motors at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, when a caravan of the machines zipped down the town’s main street and headed for the woods nearby.
ATVs are a common sight in the tiny Southwest Virginia town, which boasts access to Spearhead Trails — a large off-road trail network — and the new Clinch River State Park. But this particular caravan carried Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, along with a slew of government officials, in town for day two of a three-day annual conference for Appalachian leaders.
Online registrations for the 2021 Appalachian Regional Commission conference have far outweighed the in-person attendance; Northam’s staff reported roughly 800 online and 100 in-person registrations. Multiple leaders and residents in St. Paul agreed, though: The conference was still one of the biggest events they’d seen in their town of less than 900, where outdoor recreation, spurred by ARC grants and other investments, has become the cornerstone of economic revitalization efforts.
“We’re holding this conference in a location that’s focused on the outdoor recreation economy,” said Northam, who co-chaired the conference and decided to bring it to St. Paul and Abingdon. “Outdoor recreation creates jobs and revenue and attracts talent to the region.”
The conference kicked off that morning at the Oxbow Center, a meeting and environmental education space run by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. There, Northam and Gayle Manchin — the ARC’s federal co-chair, former first lady of West Virginia and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin — joined Hogan, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and representatives from the commission’s 13 Appalachian states, with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear attending virtually.
The group’s representatives talked about the challenges facing their states’ Appalachian communities — high poverty rates, lagging infrastructure, lack of access to early childhood education and high-speed broadband struggles — and touted strides they’d made in those areas.
“Broadband…access today is today what electricity [access] was a few generations ago: a necessity, not a luxury,” said Northam. “So in Virginia, we made a commitment to universal broadband access by 2024, by allocating $700 million in American Rescue Plan funds and additional state funds.”
Manchin talked money, too: about the $210 million budget for the commission’s upcoming fiscal year, which, if approved by the U.S. House and Senate, would mean a “$30 million [budget] increase over our 2021 fiscal level.” She said an additional $1 billion could flow into the group through the massive infrastructure package pending in Congress, and stressed the need to help local Appalachian communities wisely spend all the COVID-19 relief funds that have already flowed into their coffers.
But the group spent most of Tuesday out and about, shuttling between St. Paul’s renovated theater, lunching at its new brewpub and buzzing over its ATV trails — all of which have received funding from the commission — along with visiting a lookout area and restaurant in Norton.
The tours gave Bobbie Jackson, the general manager of the Western Front Hotel, a chance to catch her breath. Standing outside the hotel, which has also received ARC funding, late Tuesday morning, Jackson said the past week had been a gauntlet. She’d had her 15 staff clean the facility from top to bottom and put on a dinner for the guests at the hotel’s restaurant Monday night.
“This is the biggest event we’ve hosted,” said Jackson. “It’s been an entire community effort [to get ready].”
St. Paul native Maddie Gordon, the owner of adventure gear company Clinch Life Outfitters, said the customers coming into her shop kept asking her who the newcomers were, and why the main street was blocked off.
“Most everyone’s happy for it,” said Gordon, who spoke about the town’s budding outdoor recreation economy at that morning’s commission meeting. “Some people don’t like the extra traffic. That’s one of the things about being in this area — you don’t have to worry about the traffic. But ultimately, it’s well received and appreciated.”
Doug Evans seemed thrilled about the extra traffic, especially the all-terrain kind. A retired sheriff, he said he’s one of three brothers, all retired, all ATV enthusiasts. He woke to a phone call that morning from his brother Jody, who works at the Western Front Hotel.
“He said, ‘We need you to come over here and bring your side-by-side,’” Evans said. “That’s what we call [ATVs] here: side-by-sides.”
Doug Evans said he counted at least 50 of the boxy little vehicles lined up for the conference guests that day. At 12:30, he and Jody were riding in his camouflaged side-by-side, kicking up dust clouds as the ATV group carrying Northam and Hogan climbed a series of hilly roads to Spearhead Trails.
The organization — which launched roughly a decade ago and got a $300,000 grant from the ARC several years back — has roughly 600 miles of trails and sells about 10,000 ATV permits a year, according to Northam.
“We’re driving on land formerly stripped for coal,” Jody Evans said, pointing out the low scrub bushes and open fields at the trail’s entrance.
The dust changed to mud after the group entered the forest, where the maples, oaks and poplars were showing gold between the pines. Doug Evans hit 22 miles per hour as he crested one of the hills, declaring it a “hard-top road” compared to the trails he said he rides on his family’s property.
“[Having] Spearhead Trails right here is a good thing for this area,” he said. “It brings in a lot of people and a lot of money, especially for a small town like this.”
Back in front of the Western Front Hotel after the ride, Northam echoed that sentiment.
“I’m from rural Virginia. I grew up in a town over on the Eastern Shore,” the governor said. “One of the things that I have always been committed to…is to take care of rural Virginia, because I think often we get overlooked and left out. When we talk about the importance of a strong economy, it’s got to be all of Virginia.”
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 email@example.com