Flanking the Kanawha River in Southern West Virginia, the two small towns of Montgomery and Smithers are working together to establish their status as a burgeoning gateway, surrounded by national and state parks, gorges and rivers, forests and trails. From the Hatfields and McCoys Trail, to the Mammoth Preserve, to New River Gorge National Park, these communities have many unique offerings. While the area is now characterized by lively cooperation between municipalities, there was a time when Montgomery and Smithers held a bitter rivalry. However, being able to collaborate inside of the 2015 Berea, KY Appalachian Gateway Communities Initiative workshop led to the realization that by working together, the two towns could develop a strategy centered around their adjacency to various outdoor recreation offerings—a path which would also help them recover from a declining extraction-based economy.
Still working together, the workshop team has wholly embraced the gateway identity as a guiding principle. Town leadership, including team member and Smithers mayor Anne Cavalier, have been able to make great strides under a regional partnership they conceived during the workshop. Called the Upper Kanawha Valley Strategic Initiative Council, it has been featured in national news outlets for its creative approach and broad reach. In fact, the partnership is quite inclusive towards the large number of unincorporated towns and villages in the subregion with a total of 13 member communities. With this approach, the organization was able to act as a bona fide federal grant candidate and acquire an impressive $4.68 million congressional earmark for the Smithers Integrated Trail Plan. The plan is slated to connect the Montgomery-Smithers area to the nearby trail systems while also developing an area near the river for tourists to lodge—an idea that was conceived from the ground up with an understanding of the area’s character as a gateway.
In fact, the gateway identity has been a core characteristic and guiding principle for nearly every planning decision and grant application since the towns attended the workshop. Best embodying the partnership’s enthusiasm for their gateway status is the 32,000 square-foot Gateway Community Center in Smithers, which repurposed an unused elementary school. The center houses a number of services which are intended to provide affordable necessities such as behavioral health, daycare, and elder care to residents and visitors alike—balancing the need to take care of residents while remaining coordinated with the region’s shift towards tourism. In addition, the center serves as a cultural hub for visitors, with an auditorium that hosts artistic events ranging from dance recitals to concerts by local bands.
As the Gateway Center exemplifies, rather than trying to become the destination itself, Montgomery and Smithers have worked to make themselves an essential companion to the numerous nearby parks. This strategy has certainly paid off, considering the nearly 15% increase in visitation which the nearby New River Gorge National Park has been enjoying since its designation as a National Park in 2021, generating money for the Council towns’ economies.
With the continued collaboration of the workshop team, the Council is poised to develop a number of landmark projects in the region. In addition to the aforementioned Smithers Integrated Trail Plan, another multi-million-dollar congressional earmark has been provided for a project called Kanawha River Park, which will cover 24 acres and allow the region to begin building out capacity for visitor lodging.
Downtown revitalization is also an active component of the region’s continued growth. In addition to a parking lot repurposed into a public art installation, the city of Smithers owns a number of properties along WV Rt. 60, which they are currently working to rent out to local businesses. The team hope that these businesses will attract tourists who will spend in the local economy and enjoy the region’s arts and culture offerings.
Outside of their immediate community work, the team are dedicated to helping spread knowledge of the gateway concept and brand, tutoring other up-and-coming communities such as Madison, West Virginia. With West Virginia’s diverse outdoor recreation opportunities and beautiful communities of all sizes, the gateway mindset is a perfect fit.