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West Virginia's Corridor L Opens the Door to Tourists

by James E. Casto

In the summer of 1968, three adventuresome Pennsylvania brothers—Jon, Chris, and Tom Dragan—established West Virginia's first whitewater rafting company. By the end of the summer they had hauled 200 customers down the New River and given the state a new industry.

Today, more than 30 rafting companies operate on the New and Gauley Rivers, attracting more than 150,000 riders a year and pumping an estimated $40 million into the state's economy. The two rivers offer rafters a range of experiences, from an easy float down the Upper New, to classic whitewater on the Lower New, to the exhilarating world-class challenges of the Gauley.

But in the rafting industry's early days in West Virginia the toughest task confronting many would-be rafters was finding their way to Thurmond, the little community—once a railroad "boomtown"—where the Dragans opened their fledging business.

"Getting here used to be the biggest obstacle," recalls Chris Dragan. "Before the interstates and U.S. 19 were complete, it took seven and a half hours to get here from Pittsburgh. Now it takes four and a half hours, and it's a lot easier to get here from places like Washington."

U.S. 19—Appalachian Corridor L—is a 70-mile north/south shortcut from Interstate 79 near Sutton to the West Virginia Turnpike just north of Beckley. Along the way it cuts across the spectacular New River Gorge and the historic Midland Trail (U.S. 60), the winding east/west route first authorized in 1790 as a state road by the Virginia Assembly.

Construction of Corridor L was started in 1969 and completed in 1978 at a cost of $174 million in state and federal funds. More than $45 million of that went to build the spectacular New River Gorge Bridge, the highest east of the Mississippi. "Awesome" is the only word to describe the span, which soars 876 feet above the water and, at 1,700 feet, is the world's longest single-arch steel span. The bridge began attracting curious tourists while it was still under construction and today can be seen in countless vacation photo albums compiled by visitors to West Virginia.

Based on traffic estimates at the time, only about half of Corridor L was built as a four-lane divided highway. The rest was two lanes, with a third lane provided for big trucks and other slow-moving vehicles on the steepest grades. What happened once the new road was opened surprised even those who had long campaigned for its construction. Traffic on it soared, quickly outpacing all official predictions.

Not just whitewater rafters but fun seekers of all kind found that Corridor L provided quick access to the remarkable scenic and recreational opportunities the area offers. Hikers, campers, fishing fans, and folks intent on just "getting away for a while" crowded the new road—and spurred tourism in the area.

Travelers Take to the Road

Long-distance travelers also flocked to the road, finding it a handy shortcut. By turning off I-79 and driving south on Corridor L to the West Virginia Turnpike, southbound drivers found they could save about 45 minutes over continuing on to Charleston on I-79, then heading down the Turnpike. The shortcut quickly became popular with truckers and Canadian vacationers making their way from Toronto to the beaches of South Carolina and Florida.

"A surprising number of people have figured out that this is a much shorter route to the beach than traveling either I-75 or I-81," says Charles Bockway, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

From 1979 to 1994, the traffic count on Corridor L jumped nearly fourfold—from a daily average of 2,800 cars and trucks to more than 10,000. At some points, the count is even higher. And the Department of Transportation now expects it to double to 20,000 vehicles per day over the next 20 years.

The need to upgrade all of Corridor L to four lanes was therefore clear, and Congress—acting at the urging of West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd—has authorized the necessary federal funding.

A 15-mile stretch from U.S. 60 north to Summersville has been upgraded and construction work is underway on the final 24 miles, from Summersville north to I-79. The $168 million project involves nearly 1,700 workers who must blast and move 12 million cubic meters of earth and rock, build eight new bridges, and add two new interchanges—one for W.Va. 82 at Birch River and the other for W.Va. 55 at Muddlety.

Traffic is being maintained during the work. On a project of this size, motorists usually would be detoured to another road. But state transportation secretary Fred VanKirk says a decision was made to keep the highway open during construction because "businesses along Corridor L, especially those in the Summersville, Fayetteville, and Oak Hill areas, depend on the tourists and truckers driving that road."

The upgrade is scheduled for completion in late 1997. Highway officials say that while it won't increase the amount of time saved by taking the cutoff, they expect it will substantially reduce accidents along the heavily traveled route.

The cost of upgrading Corridor L to four lanes is $287 million in state and federal funds. Added to the cost of the original work done between 1969 and 1978, that's a total of $461 million for both stages.

Focus on Tourism

In conjunction with the four-laning of Corridor L, Senator Byrd added funds to a federal appropriations bill to help communities along the highway capitalize on existing tourism opportunities and attract new tourism-related businesses and jobs.

The program, Byrd explains, is "intended to serve as a model for use throughout Appalachia" as the corridor highway system nears completion.

West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton, ARC's 1996 states' co-chairman, agrees: "Completing these arteries, such as Appalachian Corridor L, opens regions to enormous economic development and tourism opportunities, and that means more jobs and progress for West Virginians. We can thank Senator Byrd for his relentless effort to help communities along Corridor L and to maintain the Appalachian Development Highway System."

Byrd notes that other communities that later use the model may concentrate on different areas of economic growth, but this effort focuses on tourism since the four counties traversed by Corridor L—Braxton, Nicholas, Fayette, and Raleigh—already have seen such impressive growth in the tourism industry.

As a first step, ARC contracted with Concord College to conduct an inventory of tourism events and resources, including festivals, accommodations, restaurants, and other attractions.

Subsequently, ARC sponsored a series of planning sessions in communities along Corridor L in an attempt to involve area residents and businesses. To conduct these sessions, the Commission retained Community First! Partners, a planning firm that regularly works with communities to shape effective tourism development programs.

"From the first we were determined that this not be simply another study," says Andy Boyd, a community development specialist with the West Virginia Development Office. "We weren't interested in doing something that, once completed, would go on a shelf somewhere and be forgotten."

The Corridor L Tourism Enhancement Steering Committee, made up of local people, was organized, and individuals and organizations were invited to submit proposals for modest-sized projects aimed at promoting tourism. Nearly 40 grant requests were submitted and, from these, the Steering Committee selected 22 for funding. At an average of slightly more than $5,000 each, the total outlay for the 22 grants came to roughly $122,000.

Concord College, West Virginia University, and Davis and Elkins College—educational institutions with expertise in tourism—were enlisted to provide technical assistance to participants in implementing their projects. "We think this linkage between local people and the schools is a key element in the program's success," says Boyd.

Members of the Steering Committee were impressed by the wide variety—and high caliber—of the projects presented, says Scott Legg of Summersville, who chaired the committee. "Many, we found, were closely related and so we were able to get people to join forces," Legg says. A common theme for many projects: the need to do a better job of informing tourists about what the area has to offer—through signs, maps, guides, and videotapes.

For example, a grant to the Southwestern West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau will enable them to produce a handy, easily updated binder outlining tourist attractions in the region. The binders will be distributed to local hotels and motels, for use both by visitors and by staff members, who—because turnover at hotel front desks is high—often aren't familiar with what the region has to offer visitors.

Other projects funded include a prototype gift shop, planning for new scenic trails, and a regional tourism conference. "Obviously, the projects themselves are important," says Boyd. "But just as important is the networking and the sense of community this project has sparked."

James E. Casto is associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.