City Looks at Outdoor Economy

Program Promotes Recreation on River

Morgantown Dominion Post
24 August 2013
By Ben Conley

From riverside sawmills to hydro-electric dams, flowing water has been used as a power source countless ways as civilization has advanced.

Tuesday, Morgantown City Council got a glimpse of how the Monongahela River could be harnessed as a powerful engine for the local economy.

Cathy McCollom and Kent Edwards, representing the River Town Program, asked council members to bless what would initially be a three-year effort.

It would allow Morgantown to tap into an outdoor recreation industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue annually — at no cost to the city.

The program is funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, a philanthropy focusing on West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.

“The program began in Pennsylvania along trails and now it focuses on recreational, navigable rivers,” McCollom said. “The core component of the program is the outstanding increase in users of outdoor recreational pursuits.”

McCollom used her hometown of Confluence, Pa., as an example of what the program can accomplish.

She said the town of about 667 people was traditionally focused on coal mining and industry, but transitioned into a hub of outdoor recreation.

“That town of 667 now has 13 bed and breakfasts, eight guest houses, six restaurants, two grocery stores, a gas station that does $1 million-plus in gross receipts, a bike shop, kayak, bike and canoe rental and an antique shop. Obviously, the local population could not support that, so it’s visitor strat- egy that’s made Confluence see that kind of growth.”

Step one of the process is to get council’s approval — which will likely come at the next council meeting, on Sept. 3.
City Manager Jeff Mikorski was asked to draft a letter of approval on which council could vote.

The second step is the formation of an action team made up of representatives from local groups and engaged citizens that will identify, organize and spearhead short-term, mid-term and long-term goals.

“We need your ideas. We don’t decide what those projects are. We don’t come up with the ideas. The people decide. The action team decides. It doesn’t work any other way,” Edwards said.

Edwards explained that the projects could be as small as placing signs along the river and trails alerting passers-by to downtown offerings or as large as expanding trails to connect with other communities.

Council member Bill Kawecki asked how the group keeps from stepping on local toes.

“We have a very active community. How do you deal with organizations that are already committed to doing some of these things?”

McCollom said active local groups create “the best situation for us.”

“Then what we do is go to the organization that is most strongly aligned with what we aim to do and say ‘What can we do to help you? Can we participate? You now have access to us as added capacity.’ ”

Both McCollom and Edwards made clear that the outdoor recreation industry is well worth the city’s attention.

“This is not small potatoes. These are not little visitors that are wearing spandex that come for a couple hours and leave,” McCollom said. “They do that, but they leave behind significant amounts of money.

“It is a huge employer and can have a huge impact,” she said, adding that the outdoor recreation industry employs five times as many people as Wal-Mart, the largest commercial enterprise in the world.

McCollom said Star City was already on board. The program will be presented to Granville next week.

She said Westover has not responded to the group’s requests.