According to a recently released study, rock climbing brings in more than $12 million in estimated direct spending by non-local climbers to Fayette, Nicholas and Raleigh counties per year.
The study, “The Economic Impact of Rock Climbing in the New River Gorge Region,” was completed by a team from Eastern Kentucky University, Wofford College and a Ph.D. candidate from Virginia Tech between May and November 2018 at the recommendation of the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) and the Access Fund.
Along with the more than $12 million in direct spending, the study estimated that climbing supported 168 jobs and $6.3 million in wages in the three counties, along with an additional $2 million in spending inside West Virginia but outside the study area each year.
Working with the NRAC, researchers estimated that approximately 6,000 unique climbers recreate in the three counties per year, with only 5 percent of that number being local climbers.
While the study found that the vast majority of climbers were not locals, they were by no means strangers to the region.
According to the study, out-of-region climbing visitors registered an estimated 120,000 visits to the area, with a mean expenditure per trip of a little over $100 and with the most common stay length being two nights.
Along with the direct spending, the study estimated that climbers added an estimated benefit of $1.2 million in state and local taxes and an additional $1.1 million benefit to federal taxes through the employment they helped support.
Looking at the demographics of who visited, the study found that 70 percent of climbers had at least a bachelor’s degree; 20 percent possessed graduate degrees; 45 percent made at least $50,000 per year; and 10 percent had a personal income in the six-figure range.
While the study noted climbing opportunities in Summers County, researchers excluded that county due to its distance from the central heavy climber area further north.
“The Southeast has amazing whitewater, mountain biking, backpacking, and fly fishing, but it may be rock climbing that is currently gaining the most momentum,” according to a statement from NRAC.
“Pushed by an explosion of climbing gyms in urban and suburban areas, along with recent blockbuster climbing movies such as Free Solo and The Dawn Wall, more and more people (many of whom are not necessarily long-standing outdoor enthusiasts) are flocking to outdoor climbing areas for weekend vacation getaways.
“A huge portion of the U.S. population lives within a six-hour drive of quality Appalachian sandstone. And these climbers are spending money; the stereotype of the frugal ‘dirtbag’ scrounging for free catsup packs and saltines at the Yosemite cafeteria is rapidly fading.”
The NRAC statement suggests recreation as a possible hedge against the boom and bust cycles that the state has felt in its history of an extraction-based economy, pointing to the state’s unemployment figures, poorly rated education system and opioid crisis as evidence that the current model is not working.
“A strong culture and economy of responsible, sustainable outdoor recreation on beautiful public lands can help turn around these dismal figures,” the statement reads. “The benefits of living adjacent to outdoor recreation lands are well-established in terms of economics and overall quality of life.”
The climbing coalition statement also adds the possibility that well-maintained recreation opportunities can draw new blood into the region, offering the fact that their board is made up largely by folks who settled in the New River Gorge area due to recreation.
“Eventually, we hope that more diverse industries will also choose to locate themselves at the NRG, presenting outdoor recreation opportunities as incentives for employees, creating desirable career opportunities in the region that will in turn benefit public education and infrastructure,” the statement reads.
While bullish on the benefits of climbing to the area, the NRAC statement recognizes that recreation is not a “cure all” for the region’s problems and that non-local recreation users will not be the “saviors” for the region’s residents.
“In the end, however, is this simple fact: Rock climbers are bringing money to a place that needs it. We want this to continue.”
Along with the NRAC, the Access Fund expressed excitement about the results of the study.
“Climbers, local communities, and land managers have an exciting opportunity to improve climbing access and bring more climber spending to the region to support local economies,” said Zachary Lesch-Huie, Southeast Regional Director for Access Fund, in a news release.
The Access Fund is a national nonprofit aimed at promoting access to climbing and ethical climbing practices.
Along with the recently published New River Gorge region study, the Access Fund pointed to past studies which show the economic impact of climbing.
In another study completed by Eastern Kentucky University, researchers found that climbers accounted for an estimated $3.8 million in spending in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge region. A study completed by the Outdoor Alliance found that climbers spend an estimated $14 million in western North Carolina per year.
In another study, completed by a team from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, researchers found that climbers spend an estimated $6.9 million per year in the Chattanooga area.
“Studies like this continue to show climbing is a renewable, sustaining economic resource,” Lesch-Huie said. “Climbing is often located in rural areas, and the activity can help bring much-needed economic stability to communities facing long-term economic challenges.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH