Second in a two-part series
FAYETTEVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA — After New River Gorge National River became America’s newest national park and preserve in a Covid-relief bill passed at the end of 2020, some area businesses saw an economic boom.
But smaller businesses haven’t reaped those same rewards.
Real estate values increased but so has the list of people looking for affordable housing.
Local and out-of-state developers are refurbishing dilapidated houses and buildings into apartments and a boutique hotel. A Hampton Inn is coming to the area.
Fayetteville is the closest town to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The town’s economy is good, but perhaps at the expense of a quiet life.
A coalition and business group in Arkansas have touted it as a model to explore re-designating public land around the Buffalo National River as a “national park preserve.”
In June 2022, the Runway Group, LLC, owned by brothers Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton and heirs to the Walmart fortune, quietly approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, with the idea of re-designation.
The Runway Group is also a part of the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo River National Park Preserve, who claims re-designating lands would make the “area the most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Westerman have spoken about the possible re-designation. The First Gentleman, Bryan Sanders, and Tom Walton have promoted the idea of re-designation as a way to increasing the state’s tourism industry. Bryan Sanders began reaching out last spring to state officials about a possible re-designation.
The Record traveled to Fayetteville, W. Va., and interviewed locals, elected officials, business owners, national park service employees, Realtors and vacation property managers to learn how re-designating the New River Gorge has changed the area and their way of life.
New River Gorge Park and Preserve did not automatically get federal funding after its’ lands were re-designated.
The Runway Group praised New River Gorge Park and Preserve’s success, noting it “recently celebrated $3.7B in federal funding since it was designated a National Park.”
The group based that funding information on a video in which U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D.- W. Va., who pushed for the re-designation along with U.S. Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, R.-W. Va., said $3.7 billion had flowed into the surrounding counties and but he does not mention direct funding for the park and preserve.
“We don’t actually specify who received the funding in our statement but do have a link to the video on our site for further reference to the $3.7 billion,” a Runway Group spokesperson said.
There have been misconceptions about how much federal funding would be provided to any type of national park or preserve on the Buffalo River.
After re-designation, federal funding does not automatically flow into a new park and preserve or its surrounding communities.
State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who represents District 28, disputed claims that billions in federal funding would be given to the Buffalo National River if it was re-designated as either a park or preserve and reached out to Chase Emerson from the office of U.S. Senator John Boozman, R.-Ark.
“After consulting with our Department of Interior Legislative Staff,” Emerson wrote to King, “It seems that the initial projections of billions of dollars coming to any change in designation for the National River to a Park or Preserve seem exaggerated.
“There are some additional funding opportunities and mechanisms but not billions of dollars, to our knowledge,” Emerson wrote.
“Unfortunately there’s nothing that says, ‘OK, now you’re a national park, so you get an increase,” District Supervisor for Interpretation at New River Gorge Park and Preserve Dave Bieri said.
“Everything’s kind of based on visitation and that takes a while. So at this point, we’re able to start showing we’ve got more and more visitors here,” Bieri said.
Even though tourists’ spending can pump money into the local economies in towns near national parks, such as Fayetteville, funding for national parks and preserves projects takes at least three years to obtain and even then money is not guaranteed. All national parks compete against each other for funding.
Funding for national parks comes from various government funds.
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed in 2020 provided funding for National Park Service maintenance needs, mainly for large-scale projects that couldn’t be covered by a yearly budget. New River Gorge has about $30 million worth of projects funded by the act, but that isn’t connected to the park and preserve’s designation. GAOA money is available already to federal parks in Arkansas, including the Buffalo National River, said Lizzie Watts, Former Park Superintendent of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
New River Gorge has also continued to add land, last year adding 1,000 acres paid for by a land fund. Adding land to the park and preserve, coupled with the name change, provided a small increase in the park’s base appropriation, which includes line items such as salaries, utilities, and other continuing bills, Watts said.
In 2022, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve generated $96.1 million in “economic output,” and supported 1,044 jobs in the area, according to the 2022 National Park Visitor Spending Effects Report.
In that same year, more than 1.5 million park visitors spent an estimated $79.3 million in local gateway regions while visiting the park and preserve. Eighty-eight percent of the visitors were from out-of-state, the report said.
That same report noted the Buffalo National River contributed more than $78.4 million in “economic output,” had 1.3 million visitors to the area, and contributed more than $64.9 million in spending in local gateway communities. That supported 864 jobs and had a total economic output of $78.4 million.
Even though the visitors are generating money for Fayetteville and its surrounding communities, the towns themselves are not recipients of that funding.
“I don’t see a big influx of money,” Fayetteville Town Manager Matt Diederich said.
Fayetteville Mayor Sharon Cruikshank said sales tax dollars increased, along with hotel and motel taxes, but that money is not designated for the town’s infrastructure. Rather, those taxes are required by state last to be used to promote visitation and tourism.
“We like that but that didn’t help with signage and building bathrooms,” Cruikshank said.
The re-designation has created jobs in the service industries throughout the region but the town has not added staff, but could in the future.
Diederich said the town is preparing for the possibility of adding a job to work on outdoor recreation.
Also, the town built more trails with grant money it received for the development of lands that adjoin the federal park.
“Communities around the park are very much interested in what’s going on in the park and very much want to be a part of it,” Bieri said.
Tourism associated with New River Gorge has always been good for area businesses.
During Covid, tourists took advantage of the area as a place to enjoy outdoor recreation while remaining self-contained.
Tourists increased and diversified when the area became a national park and preserve.
Canyon Rim Visitor Center usually sees “about 300,000 to 350,000 visitors per year, and this year, they’re hitting 500,000,” Bieri said.
The type of visitor changed. The park saw an influx of people whose objective is to visit all 62 national parks.
“It wasn’t just going to be recreational visitors anymore or sightseers to the bridge [one of West Virginia’s most photographed places],” said Watts, who worked for the National Park Service for 45 years. “They have high expectations. They want the resources there. They want the camping facilities available. All of the high expectations of going to Yellowstone National Park is what they expect. Your staff needs to be retrained and be prepared for that.
“The community, in our case, had to step up because we didn’t have a lot of those big facilities. But the local communities outside of us did. And they were probably more prepared in some ways than the park was,” Watts said.
Bieri said visitors wearing various national park T-shirts come into the visitor center asking to get their national park passport stamped.
For some, New River Gorge is replacing the annual beach trip.
“This is where they’re coming and they’re going to go home with a hat and T-shirt” Bieri said.
Profits from the Canyon Ridge Visitor’s Center Store jumped 75%.
Visitors consider a new park a destination.
“I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to be overrun with traffic because the American vacationer is in love with the newest national park,” said Larry Nibert, owner of West Virginia Experience, a fishing and hunting guide service.
The kind of visitors changed too.
Laurel Johnson, who grew up in the area and works in the service industry, said, “In the past, it was climbers, hikers, paddlers, people that we see all the time. Now there is a bigger group of explorers, adventurers, [and] people that just want to go to a different place.”
Andy Forron, owner of New River Bikes, said one of his coworkers moved to Fayetteville to ride bikes, another to rock climb, and other tourists visited to run rivers. Some of the best rock climbers and rafters in the world come to the area.
“It was an outdoor town. It was gritty or hard,” Forron said. “When we got a park, we got a bunch of people with sticks walking around that aren’t what we’re used to. I’m not saying it’s bad. We get a lot of people [who] just come in, walk around and walk off. We’re fine with that.”
Out-of-state visitors stay several days.
“Two years ago, if you came out here camping, unless it was a holiday weekend, I’d say you’ll have no problem finding a campsite down there,” Bieri said. “Now people come in and they’re gonna be there early because they fill up every night.”
Realtor and owner of Cathedral Cafe, Wendy Bayes, said concessionaires are catering to the tourist who will stay at a campground with lots of amenities, such as zip lining, swimming and rafting.
Visitors also come year-round.
“It’s more of a week than a weekend, so they’re staying for longer and I think they knew that would be great for the area,” Bayes said.
“We don’t really have an off-season,” Johnson said. “We have a super-slammed if-you-get-a-table-you’re-blessed season.”
November through spring “used to be the off-season, but now people are still coming here to climb or still come here to mountain bike, to hike, [and] to explore the area,” Diederich said.
“It’s still busier now in November on a Thursday then it used to be on a Saturday in July,” Forron said.
The year-round tourism cycle forces locals to find other trails to explore or bike.
“What are you going to do on Saturday? You’re not,” Forron said. “You’re just going to leave. That trail that you used to go wander down with your dog in the morning, you can’t do that.”
Johnson said she and her parents still love the area but on weekends, they travel two hours north, away from the crowds.
“And that’s the best part about living here, in my opinion,” Johnson said. “There are so many cool places you can go to that you will never see anyone.”
Johnson said on weekends, rather than fighting the crowds, “What I love to do is just go out and bushwhack, just go out into the woods. I know the mountains here.”
Becky Sullivan, director of the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said locals still enjoy the river and the park. “You just have to know where to go.”
The crowds make it harder for the people living there to enjoy eating in their local restaurants during the summer.
“You know, I used to go get a sandwich at lunchtime [at Cathedral Cafe] and now I don’t do that in the summer because I can’t do it in my half-hour lunch break anymore because there’s so many darn people there,” Bieri said with a smile.
Wait times can be more than two hours at the local pizzeria. Forron said when he gets together with friends, they order take-out.
Town Council member, parks director and vacation rental manager, Brian Good, said he’s OK with the sacrifice, noting restaurants don’t have to close in the winter and provide year-round jobs.
Housing is in short supply, vacation rentals are plentiful, and property taxes have increased. Dilapidated properties are being refurbished and repurposed.
“Our town looks better than it’s ever looked,” Good said.
Fayetteville had 25 abandoned or dilapidated buildings in the area when Cruikshank became mayor. The town now has about three, she said.
“The re-designation did something to housing prices that made me happy, not only as a Realtor but as a local,” Bayes said. “People around West Virginia have been getting the short end of the stick their whole lives … It was nice to see these homes that were worth nothing get bought up for way more.”
But housing is in short supply. Most investors focus on vacation rentals, with more than 100 in the area.
People moving to the area and seasonal workers can’t find affordable housing.
“If we were to hire more employees, they couldn’t live here,” Forron said. “There is nowhere to live. If you don’t have a house now, you’re not getting a house.”
Jon Evans, who works with Forron, said his house is worth two or three times what he paid for it three years ago.
Farron lives in town. “I don’t have neighbors. I have one neighbor. Everybody else? They’re all Airbnbs,” he said. “I get new neighbors every three nights year-round. When I moved there, I had neighbors. Ten years ago, we had neighbors.”
Diederich said the re-designation raised the area’s cost of living, but, “We’re not at the point where you can’t live here and work here,” he said.
“But, it’s taken that starter home and turned it into a short-term rental. That was happening before the re-designation and Covid might have accelerated it,” he said.
Forron wants to see people put down roots in the area.
People who own vacation rentals “pay property taxes, but they don’t live here,” he said. “They don’t buy gas, they don’t buy food, they don’t vote. Think about that.”
Good said the vacation rentals on Forron’s street are turning into rental homes again because investors are not able to get a good return on their investment as far as what they’re able to charge on a nightly basis. The vacation rental market is saturated.
But Good said people don’t have a clear perception of a vacation rental.
“People from this region will vacation at the beach and don’t think twice about staying in an Airbnb there, but when they have Airbnb or guest tourism coming here, they have an issue with it,” Good said.
“People say we don’t have housing but we do have housing within our region. You might not be downtown Fayetteville but you do have something two miles out of town,” Cruikshank said.
Fayetteville is short on hotels. A Hampton Inn is being built and a former school building is being turned into a boutique hotel, while another is being renovated into apartments. Nearby towns of Lewisville and Beckley are larger and offer more lodgings.
Real property taxes have also increased. Nibert, who owns two homes, said, his taxes have increased 30% in the last three years.
Bayes agreed that property taxes have increased, but not enough to make housing unaffordable.
Locals said the schools continue to underperform despite the growth in the area and the increase in property taxes.
No legislation for making the Buffalo National River a national park or preserve is currently being written, according to Westerman and Gov. Sanders.
After the local pushback during a town hall meeting, the Runway Group said they are pulling back and taking no further steps.
“We wanted to explore a new idea for our home state together. However, this is not our decision to make. There is no new action being taken,” a statement issued in October by the Runway Group said.
The coalition took down its website after the town hall meeting. The Runway Group declined to name coalition members.
“Although it is in the purview of the House Natural Resources Committee to advance legislation to designate national parks, I’ve made it clear I would not support any proposition that does not have grassroots support from those that live, work, and raise their families in the Buffalo River watershed,” Westerman said.
Watts said re-designating lands will impact communities near the Buffalo National River and close-by communities.
“It can be a positive impact if it’s handled well. It can be not necessarily positive if it’s not handled well,” Watt said.
But will the locals’ way of life change?
“Oh, I’d say it does. I mean it’s such a small town,” Watts said about Jasper, a town sitting near the Buffalo National River.
Living next to a national park or preserve or both has benefits for future generations.
“They’re good for school systems because kids go out to parks. They get to learn more about the ecosystems. They learn about preservation and what they can do to preserve this planet and how we should protect the planet,” Watts said.
The impact will be the greatest if the Buffalo National River was re-designated as a national park. A preserve will not offer the area the same profile and not as many tourists will visit.
But communities most affected by a re-designation would need to buy into a change for it to be a success.
“If the locals don’t want it, I hope they don’t do it, personally because that’s their home. That’s been their home,” Watts said. “But it is good for business. It is good for the economy. And it does bring progress if you want it or not. But it all depends on how you plan.”
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