Composed of over 50% national forest property, the Alleghany Highlands region is a unique gateway with diverse outdoor recreation offerings throughout its various parks, such as Lake Moomaw and Douthat State Park. The region also has multiple thriving downtowns in Covington and Clifton Forge, each fostering a growing community of artists and cultural events. However, coordinating these two aspects of life and tourism in the Highlands has been a consistent struggle for leadership and land managers.
Making these connections was the initial difficulty which spurred the community to organize a team which would attend the 2017 Ringgold, GA Appalachian Gateway Communities Initiative workshop, and later the 2018 Shepherdstown Advanced Workshop. By forming a team, the region had a chance to collaborate across fields and learn about each organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and what they could provide to one another. Working across these lines also helped to provide the team with a sense of pride in their natural assets, which impressed other teams at the workshop.
Through the exercises at the workshop, the team built planning skills that identified a core need: to listen to the community. So, using a portion of the $6,000 seed grant that the team was awarded, they carried out a survey that helped them to identify ways to transform the Alleghany Highlands into a more enjoyable place to live and visit.
The community survey revealed that residents had little idea what events and recreation opportunities were available, and when. This information allowed the team to move forward in creating a “shared table,” which would act as a universal event calendar for community organizations. The calendar, made available through state park visitors’ offices and the Alleghany Highlands website, now features events ranging theater, music, paint nights, and more from organizations like the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, the Clifton Forge Historic Masonic Theater, and the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center. The Arts and Crafts center has recently reported record attendance to various events featured on the calendar and sees residents and tourists of all ages at its events.
With the calendar in place, the team has new goals for the future. Although the workshop was able to strengthen connections between the parks and communities, town leadership still feels that further collaboration with the Forest Service is necessary, especially given recent staff turnover. This is doubly important given the fact that, regardless of willingness to work alongside leadership, the Forest Service runs on a tight budget and struggles to find time and resources to meaningfully connect itself with the downtowns.
To some extent, the team was able to pre-empt these difficulties with the remainder of their seed grant. During the workshop, the team noted that, aside from a lack of information, an aging and declining population was a part of the reason their downtowns lacked utilization. For this reason, a promotional effort focused on reaching tourists through the arts was prepared with seed grant funds. A two-minute video, titled “The heART of the Alleghany Highlands,” was released in March 2019 and features local artists ranging from landscape painters to bluegrass musicians.
With a growing promotional strategy based in community-gathered information and workshop skills, the promise of the Alleghany Highlands region is clear. With time, the small Virginian region is poised to continue growing as a gateway tourist destination that balances the arts with its uniquely forested landscape.