Editor’s note: This is the second installment of an occasional series of articles about the economic impact of adventure tourism in Mingo County. This series will feature businesses and organizations involved in the tourism industry and local officials discussing the benefits of the industry.
The trails are challenging. The mountain vistas are breathtaking. The residents of surrounding towns overflow with hospitality. The infrastructure is always improving. Put this all together and you come up with a great formula for adventure tourism and all the benefits it can bring.
But with all of this, you cannot overlook the most crucial factor in the equation for adventure tourism’s impact in Mingo County — the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System. One report, conducted under the authority of Marshall University, reaches the conclusion that the Trail System offers exponential value to the state’s economic base.
“Our mission is to diversity the economy and to develop the culture of entrepreneurship,” said HMTS Marketing Manager Chris Zeto.
During a presentation at the “Success in Central Appalachia: Doing Good Through Business” development seminar, Zeto outlined the success of the Trail System since its inception in 2000. In terms of permits alone, sales have gone from $151,000 in 2000 to staggering $1.9 million in sales during 2018.
Zeto added that the HMTS is on track to break the $2 million mark this year.
“When we began, we mostly had ATVs with single riders and most of them were residents,” Zeto continued. “Now, the average group is six or more people with $20,000 machines and they come from everywhere in the country.”
He quantified that statement with a breakdown of the 2018 permit sales of 50,000 passes. Of that number only 8,000 trial passes were sold to resident riders.
“That mean 42,000 trail permits were sold to non-resident riders,” Zeto said. “And, that number rises annually.”
He said this is why it behooves investors to develop lodging and related service businesses — such as eating establishments, gas and repair centers and other recreational outlets.
“More people are staying here more days per visit with 75 percent of visitors staying three to four days or more,” he explained. “This means they need more things to do. We need to offer things to make sure we can continue to grow.”
Other statistics he quoted included that 95 percent of riders on the HMTS said it was the best trails they had ridden and well worth the drive to southern West Virginia. That same percentage also said they would be likely to return.
Most of those coming to the Trail System travel an average of 200 to 400 miles from their homes, Zeto said. While here, they usually spend $250 to $500 or more person. Group spending drops an average of $2,000 to $4,000 into the local economy per visit.
Two economic and fiscal studies (2006 and 2014) have been conducted to measure the impact of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System on the local and state economy. The first study set benchmark levels from the system’s inception in 2000 until the report in 2006. The second study records the continual growth over the following eight years.
The studies, by the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research, show indicators used to prepare the report increased by 74 percent between 2006 and 2014. According to the report submitted in July 2014, the HTMS had a direct impact — for expenditures made by the Trail System itself combined with non-resident spending — of $14.28 million locally and statewide. The total impact, which includes lodging, food and other specifically related goods, was $22.2 million.
“The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System is the largest professionally managed off-road, privately-owned land area in the world,” the report states. “The presence of the HMTS in southern West Virginia has benefited the local economy and the state for more than a decade … and is likely to realize continued improvements for years to come.”
Kris Warner, state director for the USDA’s Rural Development Office, also spoke at the seminar and later met with the Mingo Messenger to discuss the importance adventure tourism could have in Mingo County.
“The opportunity is here. It is amazing to see what is happen in Mingo County,” he said. “The rivers and trails are an opportunity for economic development. It is exciting to see how the community is embracing this economic driver.
“The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System presents a unique opportunity for this region,” Warner continued. “Thousands of visitors come to southern West Virginia annually for this. Their experience is positive and many make a return visit.”
He said USDA Rural Development looks for opportunities like this to support and work with local communities. The office offers more than 40 loan, grant and loan guarantee programs to assist local investors in rural areas.
These investments can come in the form of start-up businesses or expansions and could include ventures such as lodging, restaurants, souvenirs and equipment rentals, he explained.
“The Trail System here is years ahead of any such developments in central West Virginia. Tourism is expanding,” Warner said. “We are definitely seeing a transition in the economy. We’re here meeting with local leaders to share information about our agency and to identify way that we can support the work that is happening here in Mingo County.”
He added that the establishment of an Opportunity Zone, which includes two areas in Mingo County, is another critically important factor in attracting economic development projects. These zones provide investors with tax incentives and offer priority consideration in procuring federal grants and loans.
“We have amazing trails through the Hatfield-McCoy Trail Authority,” Zeto said concerning the trails and potential development. “But, everything else is up to our local communities, investors and residents to develop. Our riders come down from the trails into the towns looking for places to eat and things to do. The potential is great.”