The COVID-19 pandemic began steamrolling throughout the country in early 2020 and almost immediately began racking up myriad casualties that would only continue to mount right up until the end of the year.
Aside from the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, across the nation schools were closed, health systems were dangerously taxed, businesses were permanently shuttered, and general tourism and local festivals took major economic hits.
On the whole, Southern West Virginia experienced its share of tragedy, social upheaval, and economic hardship as well.
However, there was at least one rare exception that rose above most of the pandemic’s ill effects and did so to heights beyond what anyone back in March believed could possibly be reached.
Expectations exceeded, and then some
This exception was the Hatfield McCoy Recreational Authority, or, more specifically, the Hatfield McCoy Trails that falls under the administration of the HMRA.
HMRA Executive Director Jeffery Lusk said the fact that the governor closed the trail system both to local and visiting trail riders from March 20 to May 21, at least in the beginning weeks of the pandemic, would have suggested an outcome far different than the one the traditionally popular outdoor attraction just experienced.
“We were closed for 61 days and since reopening we have done extremely well,” he said. “Our June, July, August, September, and October permit sales all exceeded the same five months last year. “We definitely ended the year with a growth in permit sales … we don’t know right now exactly what that number is, we’re still calculating it. But in spite of the pandemic we did actually grow this year.”
Lusk said all early signs seemed to point towards a marginally down year; one, he admits, that everyone connected to the H-M Trail system was ready to accept.
“If we would have had a flat or slightly down year we would have been very happy under the circumstances,” he said. “We were actually expecting and budgeting for a 10 to 15 percent decline in our permit sales this year, and for us to actually be up just exceeded every expectation we had.”
Lusk said he is confident that even more growth is in store for the trail system in 2021.
“We put on sale this year’s trail permits … we did that Nov. 16, and of course we’ve not had them on sale that long, but if we go on a weekly basis, every week they’ve been on sale has surpassed sales for each of those weeks last year,” he said. “Those are great signs for leading us into the winter months, and our trend line suggests we are going to continue to grow next year.”
Chamber experiences uptick in prosperity as well
Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Randall Sanger said 2020 was also an unexpectedly very good year for the Chamber.
He said the TVCC had an 86 percent increase in trail permit sales, with gift shop sales having actually tripled during pandemic-fraught 2020.
“When the lockdown was lifted in late May, we noticed immediately that the trail riders, other visitors, and locals were more than ready to be traveling and visiting the Coal House,” he said. “In fact, trail riders were the first people through the doors the day the Coal House reopened.”
Sanger said the Chamber had already made a concerted effort to increase inventory in the gift shop, and that this effort, as it turned out, paid unexpected dividends.
“We really feel that with the adventure sports and associated opportunities, along with the scenic, historical and cultural offerings, as well as a budding arts movement, our region is poised for an even bigger year in 2021,” he said.
Closely connected businesses also exceeded expectations
Some local businesses barely managed to remain open, while others were forced into either temporary or permanent closure.
However, a few of those enterprises that are closely connected to the H-M Trails — particularly lodging facilities like Local GOAT ATV Resort in Delbarton — found themselves among the fortunate few.
Considering Chafin Funeral Home co-owner Steven Cook and his family opened Local GOAT ATV Resort in the throes of the pandemic in mid-2020, much like the H-M trail system itself, theirs and similar local enterprises enjoyed remarkable success.
Cook said there does not seem to be much doubt, at least in his mind, as to why businesses connected to the H-M trail system exceeded all expectations in 2020.
“I think people have been looking for a place to go to get away from heavy populated areas, and what better place to go than the mountains,” Cook said. “They usually stay right at the cabins, either cooking their own meals or ordering takeout, and then go from the resort to the trails and back … so they’re not out traveling to other places but still taking full advantage of the trails.”
Cook said his family’s ATV resort is currently still doing about 50 percent of the rental capacity it did during the peak fall months and, based on bookings, he expects this trend to continue going into January and February.
Local GOAT ATV Resort has succeeded so well, Cook said, the family is adding a fifth cabin along with an office/souvenir building.
“We just want to continue to grow and contribute to the town which we hope will spur others to begin businesses here,” he said. “I think the fact that people continue to come to our area on the scale they have, even during the pandemic, shows there is a great opportunity for anyone.”
And then there were the favorite eating spots of the trail riders…
Many restaurants in the region, particularly those not significantly linked to the trail system, also struggled to remain open.
There were a few, such as Starters Sports Bar and Grill in Williamson that over the years became a favorite eating destination for trail riders, that not only were able to withstand the detrimental effects of the pandemic but actually managed to come through 2020 almost unscathed.
“There’s no question the success of the trail system helped us to make it through this year in pretty good shape,” Starters owner Kathe Whitt said. “We have been very lucky, there’s just no question about that. Of course, like everyone else we were closed down those four weeks, and that hurt us a lot, but when we were allowed to reopen it just took off.”
Whitt said Starters carryout even increased, specifically after hers and other restaurants across the state were allowed to reopen with 50 percent capacity.
“Our carryout has probably doubled since that time,” she said. “Sometimes it seems as if something bad is going to happen because it’s been so good.”
When allowing herself to look ahead to 2021, much like Lusk , Sanger and Cook, Whitt said she is also anticipating an even better year.
“Our trail system is becoming more popular every year, so right now I’m pretty confident about things for the upcoming year,” she said. “I just pray it’s a lot better for everyone.”