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WV towns still have room to angle for D.C. dollars

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Stephen Smoot Stephen Smoot
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Stephen Smoot is an educational director at a media foundation in Washington, D.C. He lives in Keyser with his wife and son.

As the national economy goes, so goes tourism, in many cases. Although hard times continue to haunt many parts of the country, West Virginia’s eastern counties have found a virtual pot of gold in Washington, D.C. residents with full wallets looking for a place to get away.

Luckily, West Virginia is in a prime position to take advantage. Chris Moody of Yahoo News moved to the Washington area six years ago.

“I grew up in California, and it’s the closest place I’ve found that reminds me of being out west again,” he said.

Moody also notes that roads clogged with summertime beach traffic makes the Mountain State an ideal destination, saying “we drive west to the mountains and have the whole road to ourselves.”

Local tourism officials have worked to try to attract the growing tourist trade to their particular neck of the woods. Throughout last spring, D.C. radio stations ran the “Get tucker’d in Tucker County” promotion. This centered around a contest for a two-day getaway at Canaan Valley Resort. The website, put up by the Tucker County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, promises “a high mountain natural paradise that’s untouched, unhurried and unrivaled.”

Tucker County faces strong competition from other destinations. The Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau’s Kara Dense describes marketing efforts based on traditional and social media.

“We know from our research that visitors come to the Greenbrier Valley to get away and relax,” she said. “They like our area for its beautiful scenery and the opportunity to spend time with loved ones.”

Greenbrier County is no stranger to capitalizing on tourists from capitals. The world-famous Greenbrier resort has drawn visitors from Washington, Richmond, and all over the world since before the Civil War. Since being taken over by Jim Justice, however, the venerable resort does not rely simply on its reputation. It has expanded entertainment offerings by adding concerts, a PGA golf tournament and other attractions.

It also brought a little of itself to Washington. Open since 2012, The Greenbrier’s Upper Lobby office on H Street, mere blocks from the White House, offers a taste of what the resort can offer. Its décor reflects the resort’s combination of comfort and unique style. “DC By Design” described it as “a bright escape from the workaday stiffs walking by on the gray sidewalk outside.” While it primarily exists to sell the experience to would-be guests, it also hosts events such as book signings.

As Dense explains, however, Greenbrier County is more than The Greenbrier. The area offers a variety of activities to suit a variety of tastes. Two theaters offer stage performances. Lewisburg has the chocolate and literary festivals. The natural beauty of the Greenbrier Valley and Greenbrier River draw kayakers, hikers, campers and anyone else looking for an escape to nature.

Greenbrier County’s work has paid off. Between 2002 and 2012, according to the Census Bureau, the number of accommodation and food establishments increased from 71 to 88.

And still, some natural attractions are far different from others. Paw Paw’s Avalon Resort caters to a very specific clientele wanting a change in scenery with a desire to get away from it all . . . if getting away from it “all” means getting away from wearing clothes, and the change of scenery meaning seeing more nudity. A June news release from the resort urged travelers to, “Put Some Color in Your cheeks. Hike Au Natural!”

The market for regional tourists is immense and growing. Between 2000 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Washington D.C.’s median household income rose by over 23 percent. While the average American household earned a little over $53,000 per year, D.C. metro households brought in an average of nearly $90,000 per year.

Completion of U.S. Route 48 (Corridor H) to Mount Storm has considerably shortened the time it takes to get to mountain destinations. Moody notes that “all these places are just a few hours’ drive from D.C.’s city center, but it feels worlds away. We’d go out there every weekend if we could.”

As forays into tourism marketing grow more successful, it is likely that other eastern towns and counties will also fight to bring D.C. dollars to West Virginia attractions. With the nation’s capital and surrounding areas still growing in wealth and the Mountain State having no shortage of under-visited attractions, the market still has plenty of room for the benefit of both.