CHARLESTON — The luck of the Irish may have smiled a little on the Upper Kanawha Valley on St. Patrick’s Day Thursday.
But the toil and sweat of many in recent years also helped result in some good news for the region from financial benefactors.
The Kanawha County Commission announced it was awarded a POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission in the amount of $675,210. ARC POWER grant awards arise from a highly-competitive application process.
In a press release earlier that day, the ARC revealed it had awarded nearly $21 million for 21 projects impacting 211 counties through the POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) initiative, which targets federal resources to communities affect by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations and coal-related supply industries.
ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin made the award announcement at a roundtable event in Youngstown, Ohio to discuss strategies and new opportunities to enhance industry growth in coal-impacted communities.
“We are so excited to award this new round of funding for Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities,” said Manchin. “The partnerships forged through POWER projects help transform economies across county and state lines to help build a more resilient, thriving Appalachia. When the Appalachian region’s coal-impacted communities succeed, the rest of our country is made stronger.”
In a Kanawha County press release, Manchin said, “I congratulate the Kanawha County Commission for their work in expanding and creating new businesses that will support an active outdoor recreation economy in West Virginia. Partners like Kanawha County Commission are integral to making our POWER projects come to life, and I look forward to seeing the ways our Appalachian Region continues to grow, thanks to the impact of their work.”
The ARC grant will be matched by funds from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation ($319,000) and the Kanawha County Commission ($225,000) to push the entire allocation to a little more than $1.2 million to fund engineering and design efforts to get the Upper Kanawha Valley Outdoor Recreation Plan off the ground.
In 2021, the Kanawha County Commission completed a major outdoor recreation-based development strategy and master plan encompassing a 30-mile stretch east of Charleston on both sides of the Kanawha River. The plan was prepared by Civil and Environmental Consultants Inc. For more information, visit www.kanawha.us.
The ambitious plan features many facets, including campgrounds, hiking trails, ATV trails, river access points and other tourism-related businesses.
The ARC grant will support plan projects such as trail design and development, improved recreational river access, small business growth and the opening of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System in Kanawha County.
Thanking the ARC and Manchin, as well as the Benedum Foundation, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango — citing the downturn in the coal industry and other factors — said, “The Upper Kanawha Valley has taken a beating over the last few years." "This is a major step” toward revitalization of the UKV, he said. Salango noted that earlier in the day he had said, "All these great ideas, these great plans, they sit on a shelf and gather dust until you have funding. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than be good. And we got a little lucky on this one."
During the planning stages, two major occurrences spurred things along, he said, and that was the designation of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve and the naming of Manchin as ARC co-chair.
“There are wonderful people, I mean wonderful people up there (UKV communities), and this will bring in millions and millions and millions of dollars (in recreational tourism),” said Salango.
“The Upper Kanawha Valley has been dealt a terrible hand in recent years, but I believe this award will benefit the residents of the UKV and every town along the Kanawha River — from Marmet to Montgomery,” Commission President W. Kent Carper said in a press release. “I extend my sincere thanks to Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin and the ARC for this award.”
“This is the foundation of turning the Upper Kanawha Valley around," Carper said during the ceremony.
“This is a wonderful announcement and a great day for Kanawha County and the residents of the Upper Kanawha Valley,” said Commissioner Lance Wheeler, who noted his first vote for the commission in January 2021 was in support of proceeding with the UKV plan. "This grant will allow the county to pursue economic development and small business growth in the UKV.”
“The work’s not over," said Wheeler. "This project that we’re doing right now is going to take more federal money, it’s going to take more community involvement, and we will not stop until we have completed this project and we’re bringing prosperity back to the Upper Kanawha Valley.”
In addition to securing critical funding, Wheeler said elected officials can’t undertake such projects “without the support of the community, and we have seen that support in that community."
Montgomery’s Greg Ingram was among the UKV mayors present for Thursday’s announcement. “I think it puts legs on all of our efforts," Ingram said of the funding. "It’s a long needed and long overdue support for the Upper Kanawha Valley." ARC's involvement is critical, Ingram said. "I don’t think they would invest this kind of money and not support it with the bricks and mortar, that part of it."
"You never turn down help and, wow, this is big," he added. "And the Kanawha County Commission has been on a mission probably for a year and a half or two years now to help us. When Tech left, the county commission fought that, and at that time, I think Commissioner Carper decided that we’re going to do something … to help the Upper Kanawha Valley.
"They have the UKAN program (an Upper Kanawha business assistance endeavor) helping businesses right now, but this is infrastructure."
“This is going to help every community pull together their part of the plan," said Smithers Mayor Dr. Anne Cavalier. "Most communities have a part-time mayor.
"They don’t have an economic development person, they don’t have somebody they can turn to and say, 'Okay, we’ve got the money, now go get it done.'
"With this money that came through today, what we’re going to have are three people, one person at the Land Trust, one person at the Charleston Area Alliance, and one more individual here with Kanawha County. They’re going to be the boots on the ground that are going to help us.”
The financial possibilities loom large once the plan begins to take shape, she said. Short-term construction dollars will be a boost to the economy, while more long-range, the potential for new businesses such as bed and breakfasts, restaurants, kayak rentals, new housing and new hotels and motels could be significant.
Other UKV mayors present included David Fontalbert from Marmet, David Fletcher from Belle and Paul Bradshaw from Chesapeake.
Consultant Terrell Ellis praised various partners who are stakeholders in the plan, such as the Charleston Area Alliance; the West Virginia Land Trust, which is developing the 5,000-acre Mammoth Preserve, a forest and stream restoration project near Smithers that will be "an anchor to the project;" and the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, which is expanding into the region. The latter two are already mapping trails, Ellis said.
The overall plan will require “cooperation of a lot of partners, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” she stressed.
The funding will provide resources to "hit the ground running” and give technical support such as design work for trail systems, trail heads, water access points and other areas, Ellis said.
Del. Larry L. Rowe said the accessibility of adventure sports to the City of Charleston is a big factor in the plan and that "Charleston will become the gateway of the national park at New River Gorge."
Rowe said private investment in the plan will be critical, and, as a legislator, he also discussed bills passed to create matching grant scenarios for infrastructure. Abandoned Mine Lands funding can figure into the equation, too, he said.
A unique portion of the plan is "what’s really happening is on the ridgetops," Rowe said. "We will have criss-crossing trails all over.” Also, there will be shelters, water facilities, camping, and possibly lodges from the private sector.
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With the awards, ARC has invested more than $316.6 million in 393 projects across 358 coal-impacted Appalachian counties since POWER’s establishment in 2015. The 21 new projects announced this week will support entrepreneurship, workforce development, infrastructure, tourism and health care projects to create jobs, expand job and skills training, and attract new private investment in Appalachian communities affected by the downturn of the coal industry.
“With this new round of investment through ARC’s POWER grants, coal-impacted communities will gain opportunities that help bring 21st century jobs to the region,” said ARC States’ Co-Chair Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland. “We are excited to see these projects succeed in helping create a stronger economic future for Appalachia.”
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