By Jonathan Pleasant
Several local officials and members of the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority made the trip to St. Paul, Virginia last week to visit with organizers of the Spearhead Trails Project which recently opened there. Mountain City Mayor Lawrence Keeble, County Mayor Larry Potter, and Assistant City Police Chief Joey Norris were joined by others of the DMRA board including Alicia Summers, Mike Farmer, Dan Reese, and Ben Farmer of the Farmer Morgan Planning Firm.
Unlike Doe Mountain which is a large scale project isolated specifically to Johnson County, the Spearhead project actually encompasses multiple trail development locations across seven Southwest Virginia Counties. Funded from a variety of sources including the State of Virginia through its Tobacco Commission, the initiative to the build the multi-use trails network was loosely based on the highly successful Hatfield-McCoy system in West Virginia.
In fact one of Spearheads primary planned OHV projects, known as Pocahontas Trails in Tazewell County, is expected to eventually connect with the Hatfield McCoy system. Yet, for now the organizations primary effort has been Mountain View OHV just outside of St. Paul. This segment officially opened on August 16th with over 60 miles of trails ready for use. In the month since the ribbon cutting, St. Paul officials have already seen tremendous positive feedback and a resurgence of economic activity in the town.
Meeting at the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Office in downtown St. Paul, the DMRA officials got the opportunity to see just how Spearhead has taken advantage of their local resources to promote the project to the fullest. One of the keys to making Mountain View viable has been the fact that St. Paul adopted an OHV friendly policy that allows some restricted use of the recreational vehicles to access businesses in town. St. Paul Mayor Kyle Fletcher was on hand to discuss some of the things his council has done to ensure the policies have gone smoothly.
First and foremost, ATVs and OHVs are only allowed on roads with appropriately posted speed limits, and a strict 25 MPH limit is imposed on their activities off the trail system. Routes have been identified that directly link Mountain View to St. Paul and provide access to restaurants such as McDonalds, Hardees, and Huddle House as well as gas stations and the local shopping center. With economic prospects looking good, several downtown shops, including the Big M Hardware Store have begun catering to OHV customers, and consequentially access has grown to these locations as well.
Because of the proximity to not only Mountain View but the Clinch River as well, Mayor Fletcher is hopeful that St. Paul is just beginning to see a huge boom as an adventure tourism destination. Not surprisingly, Mountain City has some of the same potential that Spearhead has taken advantage of, especially considering Doe Mountains presence overshadowing the town.
Some consideration has already gone into allowing limited ATV access into specific locations in Mountain City, such as the Pioneer Village Shopping Center. For this reason, Mayor Keeble and Assistant Chief Norris were very interested in the problems and benefits that OHV has brought to St. Paul. Local business owner and councilman Greg Bailey as well as St. Paul police Chief Bo Phillips joined Mayor Fletcher in answering some of these questions.
Rules that were established for the trails system match up evenly with rules identified in the city ordinance. As such, riders that buy a permit have a clear indication of what is expected in the city limits. Mountain View incorporates a private security force on the trails, which works directly with the city police force and collaborates in the event of any problem. According to Chief Phillips there have been very few issues thus far, and even the small number of citations that have been issued have largely come from locals rather than tourists.
Mayor Fletcher did confirm that the idea of ATVs being ridden in town was a tough sell at first. However, most of the individuals that have utilized the trail have been very family oriented and responsible riders that have greatly changed the perception of OHV in St. Paul. In just a month, Fletcher confirmed that the major bugs seem to have been worked out and city residents have greatly warmed up to the idea of becoming OHV friendly rather than just OHV tolerant.
One of main initial problems the city has faced had nothing to do with rules and regulations but a lack of suitable lodging for the large numbers of people coming into town. With no hotels inside the city limits, visitors were forced to stay approximately 20 minutes away in Norton or in nearby Castlewood. However, the real preference and key attraction of any successful OHV system is in being able to provide access directly from the lodging to the trails without having to move the vehicles on a trailer. To accommodate this service, Councilman Bailey has converted several apartments located above his hardware store into overnight lodging, and is now even considering doing the same for some of his other individual rental properties. Demand for the rooms has been very high, and with Mountain View steadily growing in popularity, city officials are hopeful that a hotel can eventually be built. Mayor Fletcher has been so convinced of the need that he has been working with potential investors to eventually develop a structure with as many as 150 rooms.
Once Doe Mountain is opened Mountain City will likely face many of the same challenges in accommodation, which is one of the main reasons the St. Paul trip was organized. DMRA officials also toured Mountain Views trail head which is large enough to handle nearly 30 trailers. As just one part of the Spearhead project, the success of Mountain View could set the pace for the whole initiative. Prospects are looking good and St. Paul is already reaping the benefits.
As much as Spearhead has taken advantage of Hatfield McCoys example, Doe Mountain could do the same. While Doe Mountain is a very unique project that possibly has no other true counterpart, the willingness of DMRA officials to look at other locations could prove very beneficial in the long run. The excitement in St. Paul is plain to see, but as much as the people there are hopeful and proud of their trails, the impact in Johnson County and Mountain City could eventually be even bigger.
By Jonathan Pleasant