Doddridge, Ritchie, Gilmer, and Tyler Counties – these rural counties have a rich heritage ranging from early frontier to industrial development and railroad history. Museums, Civil War sites, Underground Railroad sites, and preserved historical sites can attract tourists to the area, but if the tourists do not know how to get to these sites, they are less likely to come. Over the last ten years, there has been little growth in tourism jobs in this four-county region. Travel spending is low compared to other areas of the state although there are many cultural attractions to see. In recent years, more funders and agencies are driving communities toward regional efforts around community and economic development through heritage tourism and historic preservation. While each county has wonderful attractions, their scale and size make them less meaningful to tourists. Gaps in amenities are difficult to fill on a per county basis. The Economic Development Authorities (EDAs) of the four counties came together in 2013 to develop a plan for a collaborative tourism effort to address some of these issues.
The EDAs in Doddridge, Ritchie, Gilmer, and Tyler Counties formed a task force and heritage area organization –North Western Heritage By-Way – to promote economic development through historic preservation and heritage tourism. A heritage area is not a national park. Heritage areas in West Virginia are frequently administered by a non-profit organization or other private corporation, but can also be managed by state government. Heritage areas are intended to encourage historic preservation of the area and an appreciation of the history and heritage of the area, including food, music, and art. The mission of North Western Heritage By-Way is to measurably improve the economy within Doddridge, Ritchie, Tyler, and Gilmer counties by developing and promoting heritage tourism, sharing our culture, and preserving historic sites and distinctive natural areas.
Like any successful historic preservation project, this partnership requires diversified funds to jumpstart the planning process. A Flex-E-Grant through the West Virginia Development Office was awarded to the Doddridge County EDA to provide financial support to implement a planning process for the development of cultural-heritage tourism. Matching funds were provided by each county to support the Flex-E-Grant. WVU Extension Service’s Rural Tourism Specialist, Doug Arbogast, with the assistance of a WVU community-based tourism planning team was contracted to facilitate a community-based tourism planning process. The project received additional support of a Preserve WV AmeriCorps member in September 2014 to assist with project activities. Matching funds were provided by each county to support the AmeriCorps member. Preserve WV AmeriCorps is a program of the Preservation Alliance of WV via grant funds from Volunteer WV and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Through the planning process, the task force and planning team identified action strategies including creating thematic itineraries/packages, developing marketing materials, engaging additional community members and external organizations, hospitality training, and site and business development. Since a comprehensive list of tourism assets in the four counties did not exist, a tourism asset inventory of the four-county region was needed in order to identify current strengths and weaknesses, gaps, and potential packages and itineraries. The WVU Extension Service created an online form so that members of the task force could submit information about individual tourism assets in the region that would be categorized and compiled into a database. The form allowed task force members to identify assets that are visitor ready and also those that are not yet visitor ready but have potential to be an attraction. Jaco Cave in Doddridge County, North Bend Rail Trail and Tunnel in Ritchie County, the Sistersville Ferry in Tyler County – these are only a handful of heritage sites identified in the area. Want to learn more about these places and visit? For more information, contact Herk Conner (Doddridge County EDA) at firstname.lastname@example.org.