Tourism needs to bring people and money into the county
Tourism is something I have written about several times in this space, but after spending the last month working on a regional tourism magazine I am finding I have several new insights. I have recently been to Harlan, Letcher, and Knott counties, visiting what they consider tourist attractions, eating at their restaurants, visiting their businesses, and seeing just what they have to offer.
Being that for over the last year I have been a Perry County resident, and I plan on staying for as long as you will have me, I have a vested interest in the successes and failings of this region. It is no surprise to anyone in Eastern Kentucky to say that tourism has been a major push after seeing the successes of the industry at Red River Gorge and in the Smokey Mountains.
It makes sense that outdoor and adventure tourism is growing with more people moving to cities and suburbs for work, coming to the serenity of the mountains to relax or play a few times a year is a great idea. While some areas have embraced this adventure tourism model and have seen great successes in it, others have not.
One of the areas that I recently visited that has been able to draw significant crowds and bolster their tax dollars is Harlan County. They have an easy-to-use, flashy website that includes maps, links, and helpful explanations about each of the attractions. Like much of the areas in Eastern Kentucky they promote local fair like crafts, hunting and fishing, and museums. They also have opened attractions that in themselves make the trip worthwhile.
They have the Black Mountain Off Road Adventure Park, which offers miles of trails that are well-marked and maintained, along with the largest zipline in the state. The park has enough to entertain a family for a weekend, and the town Evarts has an RV camping area within a mile of the park. A private business owner owns cabins nearby that can be rented for an affordable price.
The town of Evarts is small, but the people there are utilizing what they have to make a big impact on their tourism. As anyone who travels knows, there are several important factors in deciding where you are going to go: having enough to do when you get there to make the trip worth the drive, having a place to stay that is within five miles of the activities you wish to do, and having places to get supplies like gas and groceries. Evarts has been able to offer all of that and the business continues to grow.
Letcher County has been able to capitalize thanks to some of their events like the Mountain Heritage Festival, which is ranked in the top 10 in the state. They also have regular ATV rides and organized hiking and camping sites.
While all of these things could be done in Eastern Kentucky, very few places have capitalized in this market.
We have thousands of miles of trails, none of which are marked, maintained, or are open to the public. We have points of interest like the Eversole Cabin and the Mother Goose, both of which are privately owned and not readily open to the public. There is no central area of tourism in the county like Letcher County has with Pine Mountain or Harlan has with Black Mountain.
We need to better integrate our attractions and create a reason for coming to them. I propose a ski hill. With abundant water for making snow and perfect vertical hills, the mountains of Eastern Kentucky would be great for a ski hill but not one has been created in the entire state.
Bordering states of Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, and even North Carolina have all opened ski hills that have been major tourism attractions. The area near Buckhorn Lake would be great for a ski hill since readily available water and a resort already exist. Four wheeling and snowmobiling would create alternative attractions at the same site as well as winter fishing and cross country skiing.
As a skier myself, I love going to different hills and often travel for them. It would be easy to find a group of people wanting to try a new hill since that is part of the appeal of the sport.
While the initial startup of such a business would cost money much of the necessary ingredients of a hill are already in place naturally and would be easy to maintain over time.
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