Proposed tourism corridor

Dr. Shannon Bowlingc (left), dean of the School of Engineering Technology & Computer Science at Bluefield State College and County Commissioner Bill Archer spoke to the Spanishburg Ruritan Club about the Pipestem Plan. The plan's goal is to create a tourism corridor through the region.

SPANISHBURG – A long-term plan designed to increase the region's tourist traffic and enhance economic development by creating a tourism corridor from Princeton in Mercer County to Sandstone in neighboring Summers County was the topic Monday for a local civic organization.

Dr. Shannon Bowling, dean of the School of Engineering Technology & Computer Science at Bluefield State College and County Commissioner Bill Archer spoke to the Spanishburg Ruritan Club about the Pipestem Plan. Envisioned by Bowling, the Pipestem Plan's goal is to create a tourism corridor from Princeton in Mercer County to Sandstone, an unincorporated community along Route 20 in Summers County, which connects two major interstates, I-77 near Princeton and I-64 near Sandstone.

"It's a pretty neat plan and a lot of people are excited about it," said Archer, who has been working on a plan to create kayaking opportunities on the Bluestone River as well as hiking, biking and equestrian trails reaching as far as Summers County. This Bluestone River plan would "dovetail" with the Pipestem Plan, he told the audience Monday evening at the Bluestone Valley Volunteer Fire Department.

Ideally the tourist hub would be centered around the Mercer/Summers county line near the Pipestem State Park. The model proposed is similar to the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Tenn. region, with Princeton serving as an entry point of I-77, much like Sevierville does at I-40. Pipestem transforming into a town similar to Pigeon Forge, Tenn. And, Hinton becoming a destination much like Gatlinburg, Tenn," Bowling stated in his description of the plan.

The corridor will be entered from either interstate I-77 or I-64, Bowling stated. The beginning of this corridor is less than 40 miles (a 30-minute drive) from another major interstate, I-81 running through Southwest Virginia. In addition, there are multiple entry "back roads" that allow access to this proposed corridor, Route 12 connecting to Rt. 3 from the west side of Hinton in Summers County, Route 19 connecting to Route 20 near Athens. US Route 460 connecting to Route 20 near Princeton, Bowling said All of these additional routes can serve as entry/exit routes during times of heavy traffic.

Bowling said that the Pipestem Plan would benefit the entire region. Small communities located along Route 20 and including Athens, Pipestem, Hinton and Sandstone would benefit the most. Princeton would benefit from increased traffic passing by on I-77 and Route 460.

"The counties of Mercer and Summers would see an immediate boost to their economy. That benefit would then trickle down to all communities located in those counties. Bluefield, Bluewell, Bramwell in Mercer County would benefit from the increased traffic into the area," Bowling said. "These communities could also benefit from the local attractions such as the Hatfield and McCoy ATV trails."

One member of the audience, Ray Mills of Camp Creek, said he has seen similar areas across the nation. One place that came to mind was the region around Quincy Springs, Arkansas.

"There's business after business after business," Mills said. "This goes on for miles and miles...that whole stretch has businesses from one end to the other: not big businesses, but busy businesses."

Bowling said that with more tourists arriving, the region would benefit from the need for engineering, construction, heating and cooling, and other needs.

Counties such as McDowell, Monroe, Wyoming and Mingo could also benefit from the added "influx" of people and could themselves develop attractions to capitalize from the boast in the "Pipestem economy," he said.

Bowling said some local people could feel like this influx of visitors could be "the end of their community." He stated that the "footprint" of tourism could be small and would not disrupt the region's "county living" quality of life. Many rural areas around communities like Pigeon Forge are not affected by tourists.

Tourism generated by the Pipestem Plan and activities such as kayaking on the Bluestone River would not happen quickly, he said. The Pipestem Plan is a long-term plan. Areas like Pigeon Forge took 40 to 50 years to build up to what they are now.

"I could see in five to 10 years some returns," Bowling said after the Ruritan meeting. "If you don't have a vision, it's not going to happen."

Bowling's Pipestem Project website can be found at www.pipestemplan.com.

 Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com