May 16 2016

Our view: Giles remakes itself into a tourism destination

Our view: Giles remakes itself into a tourism destination

Originally published in Sunday, May 15, 2016 Roanoke Times

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2016 2:15 am

Question: What locality in Southwest Virginia has shown the biggest increase in tourism spending within its borders?

Answer: Giles County.

If you’re asking yourself, “What’s in Giles County?,” then read on, because what Giles County has done to boost tourism spending offers a roadmap for other localities — and helps all of us mentally redefine what constitutes “tourism.”

The short answer to “what’s in Giles County?” is “the New River.” Over the past 15 years or so, Giles County has methodically developed its stretch of the river as a destination attraction.

It’s not a destination attraction that comes with flashing lights — which, of course, is precisely the point for outdoor enthusiasts. Here’s where anyone who thinks of a destination attraction as “Disney World” needs to rethink, well, just about everything.

The river is free. So how can it generate revenue? Here’s how: Outfitters. Restaurants. Beds-and-breakfasts. The country’s first microbrewery — Right Turn Clyde in Narrows. All that low-key spending adds up. Of course, there’s also The Cascades and the Appalachian Trail, which are also free but attract people who sometimes part with their money.

Then there’s Mountain Lake, which has been there a long time, and something else that’s relatively new: Giles County as a wedding spot. Yes, weddings. We’ll get to that later.

In 2014 — the last year for which figures are available — tourists spent $25.9 million in Giles County, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation. That represents a 4.7 percent increase over the year before. If you go back about 10 years ago, that figure was in the neighborhood of $15 million.

Something’s clearly happening here. That something also adds up to 239 jobs in the county that are tourism-related. If that were a single company opening up, that would be a big headline. Instead, it’s all happened incrementally — but not accidentally.

Let’s go back in time about a decade-and-a-half to when Giles officials first began to realize that the New River was an exploitable asset.

People have been floating down the New for a long time but there were two obstacles to pitching it as a destination attraction.

The first was that it was kind of, well, trashy. Everything washes downstream and a century or more of trash had accumulated along the shore. Thus began “Renew the New,” a yearly clean-up project.

County Administrator Chris McKlarney likes to say that Giles is a small enough community that it ought to be able to fix its own problems. The river clean-up is simply a problem to be fixed.

Volunteers focus on a different 10-mile stretch of the river each year, hauling away debris — from hundreds of old tires to who-knows-what. “We’ll have 200 to 300 people in the water,” McKlarney says. Do that enough times and over the years, you get a much better experience for people floating or kayaking downstream.

Each spring, county schoolkids are encouraged to participate in a separate clean-up called “Ramps and Roads” that focuses on boat ramps and roads near the river. This year, on one of the coldest days of March, upwards of 150 students were out helping clean up Adair’s Run near Glen Lyn.

The schools also send home trashbags with each student, so that those who don’t take part can at least clean up a stretch of road near their home.

But wait, there’s more: Giles County last year started a program to help pay for qualifying students to attend New River Community College for free — an initiative to create a more educated workforce in the county. Part of the requirements: 80 hours of community service. You can guess how those 80 hours usually get used. Yep, river clean-up.

You can see the effect of all this river clean-up several ways. One, of course, is a cleaner river. How clean? Well, clean enough that this year Giles will be directing all of its volunteers out of the county — to Radford, where this year’s “Renew the New” in August will focus on five miles upstream and five miles downstream from Bissett Park. The other way you can see the river clean-up is in the public art installations around the county — which artists have fashioned out of trash fished out of the water.

The second problem Giles faced in making the river more of a tourist destination was that there weren’t enough boat ramps — and the ones that existed were often little more than gravel lots littered with broken glass. They’ve now been cleaned up. Signs have been installed for what is now officially called the New River Water Trail. Restrooms built. Some boat ramps now have paved parking lots, with signs to direct traffic on busy summer days when people are lined up to get in the water. Instead of looking like dirty, sketchy, out-of-the-way hang-outs, the boat ramps now look … official. And inviting.

In all, Giles now has seven public boat ramps along its 37-mile stretch of the river, with plans to build three more. Giles’ emphasis on tourism is also now serious enough that in 2014 the county hired its first tourism director — Cora Gnegy.

What advice does Giles have for other rural localities trying to cash in on tourism? “Figure out what you’re good at,” McKlarney says. “Stick to it. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”

He also has some advice that may be unexpected: Don’t worry about name recognition. The Cascades draw 100,000 to 150,000 a year. The odds are most of them don’t know they’re in Giles; many just think in terms of the distance from Blacksburg. That’s fine, McKlarney says, as long as they spend some money in the county. The emphasis is on the New River, not Giles County, as a brand name.

For all the planning, Giles has lucked out in one way. Remember how we mentioned it’s become a wedding destination? Turns out a lot of Virginia Tech and Radford University graduates want to come back to the area to get married. There are now several country inns that cater to weddings — and because wedding guests are usually around for a whole weekend, there’s now an emphasis on other ways they can spend their time, and money. “Destination wedding” is the phrase Gnegy uses. A 20 percent increase in lodging taxes collected is the figure McKlarney uses.

And that’s how Giles County has posted the biggest percentage increase in tourism spending of any locality in Southwest Virginia.

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