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By P.R. Lockhart, Mountain State Spotlight
SUMMERSVILLE — Travelers headed south on Route 19 toward the New River Gorge are greeted with views of lush green trees, glimpses of a crystal clear lake and, as of last month, a new sight: a sign welcoming them to Summersville Lake State Park.
The park, which was announced by the Justice administration at the last minute shortly before August’s three-day special legislative session and officially designated days after, is technically already open to the public. But much of West Virginia’s 36th state park remains a work in progress, dotted with workers, humming equipment, and the occasional burst of visitors. Construction signs line the area, outnumbering trail markings in many parts.
Beyond a name and a few tidbits about where the park will be located, the state hasn’t said much. At this point, Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer said he doesn’t have many concrete details to work with but is hopeful that the 177-acre park will be a boon to his small city of 3,400.
“I think this is going to be complimentary to all of our other campgrounds,” he said. “People are going to stay with them and play in the state park.”
The park, he said, fits in perfectly with his own plans for local tourism, an industry that has become an important part of the Summersville economy in recent years.
The mayor’s hope is shared by Gov. Jim Justice, whose administration has invested heavily in state parks since 2017, elevated the Department of Tourism to a cabinet-level position and promoted the state as a destination for out-of-state visitors. State leaders argue that the strategy has paid off, with Justice recently announcing that tourism brought more than $7 billion into West Virginia’s economy in 2022, the best year for the state ever.
The effort has also had help from the Legislature. In 2022, West Virginia lawmakers passed a law allowing the state to pursue private developments within nearly all state parks. State officials have already said that they plan to use private development in Summersville Lake, but haven’t offered additional details.
While the law allowing for private development is still fairly new, it has already faced criticism. Earlier this year, residents in Morgan County pushed back on private development plans at Cacapon Resort State Park, arguing that the proposals would create an amusement park-like atmosphere. The state eventually abandoned the effort.
Now, as the new state park begins to go up on the north shore of Summersville Lake, how that law might come into play remains an open question. In the meantime, another community is beginning to consider what the changes will mean for them, and if the park will deliver the economic boost they are hoping for.
Summersville businesses hope they’ll benefit from increased tourism
The summer tourist season brings a lot of traffic to Summersville as visitors to the nearby national park drive through the area.
But in a city well known as a speed trap, getting people to stop and go to local businesses can be difficult.
Shortly before Labor Day, David Ridgeway was getting ready for a busy holiday weekend at the Summersville Lake Retreat & Lighthouse, a 57-acre, 70-site year-round campground that he bought with his wife in 2020. When he’s talking to campers, Ridgeway keeps a list at the ready.
“I gauge them on their activity level. ‘Do you like to hike? Bike? Do you want to drive? You want to be in a plane?’” he said. “‘What do you want to do?’ Because I can get you to something you want to do. It’s all right here.”
Ridgeway, a former bank lending officer who moved to West Virginia shortly before the pandemic, is the new president of the Summersville Convention & Visitors Bureau. He said he wants to find ways to boost tourism and support local businesses.
He expects that things will only get busier when the new state park is fully up and running. And he hopes that the park will help keep people in the area year-round, allowing local businesses to make money beyond the summer months and keep people employed.
“Hiring people has been the challenge,” he said. “The restaurants here are having a hard time keeping staff and waitresses and waiters.”
While the plans for the park continue to take shape, Ridgeway said he is working with local and state leaders to help develop plans for a visitor’s center at the park’s entrance on Route 19, giving visitors a better idea of what the area has to offer.
While he is hopeful that the new state park will benefit the local community, Ridgeway does acknowledge that the growing tourism economy has brought up some concerns.
“The local people are afraid of it becoming Pigeon Forge,” he said, referring to the popular resort town in Tennessee. “And business owners like us, we’re sort of OK with that, if it’s not too commercialized.”
The state’s first new park in 30 years is bringing cautious optimism — and plenty of questions
So far, state officials have largely been quiet about their exact plans for the new park, but have said they want to expand areas for rock climbing, hiking, biking and water sports.
Justice has also said that the park will be developed through a “public-private partnership,” the same types of proposals that caused controversy earlier this year in the Eastern Panhandle. This mention has been enough for some environmental and conservation groups to keep a close eye on what will happen next.
“We want full transparency,” said Mike Jones, the public lands campaign coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We want to know the plans for acquiring lands, we want to know what they plan to do after they are acquired. And specifically for Summersville Lake, we’ll be looking to make sure that the scenic and water quality values in Pirate’s Cove and the waterfall are protected.”
State tourism secretary Chelsea Ruby said in an interview that officials are prioritizing public input as they decide what the park will look like, adding that state leaders have already started having meetings with small groups of local residents, community leaders and outdoor enthusiasts who will use the park.
As of now, she added, they are preparing land for whatever they decide to add.
“You’ll see more outdoor recreational activities in the spring and summer of next year,” Ruby said. “A lot of the activity right now is about increasing capacity.”
But there’s still a lot to figure out about what comes next. The state has promised to gather additional public input on the park through a larger community meeting in the “near future,” but has not said much about when that will happen.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the agency responsible for overseeing and managing the state’s parks, did not answer questions about when a public hearing might be held or the exact types of development it is considering.
The new state park could be a boon to a ‘small city with big city opportunity’
Shafer, the Summersville mayor, said local economic development can be complicated.
“We don’t have some of the highway, byway systems that these big companies look for,” he said. “We’ve got a tiny regional airport, but it is limited in capacity.”
Instead, he’s focused more on helping small and medium-sized businesses that can boost the economy without disturbing the community too much.
And direct spending from out-of-state visitors, which brought more than $5.3 billion into the state in 2022, is a big part of his plan for the “small city with big city opportunity” that he’s led for more than a decade.
He hopes that the park will allow the city to work closely with the state. Shafer also said the park fits into his plans for tourism in Summersville — which include a new sports complex and increased access to hiking and biking trails.
But as the town becomes busier, the mayor is balancing business owners who want to grow with longtime residents who are worried that too much tourism could permanently alter their community.
“I constantly tell my constituents, ‘if you want to be a community of yesterday, you will not be here tomorrow,’” he said.
As a Summersville native, Kirkwood Winery owner Frank Dix sees both sides of the issue.
On days off, he sometimes goes out on the lake, often called “the little Bahamas of the East,” with friends and relaxes in the quiet.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “We can drop anchor in 20 feet of water and I can look down and see my anchor.”
If more people start visiting the lake as tourism expands, he said his friends worry that those moments might not happen as often. But Dix, who along with his wife Elizabeth purchased the decades-old Kirkwood Winery and Isaiah Morgan Distillery in 2017, said that he is cautiously optimistic about what plans the state will develop for the park.
“I completely understand why people are attracted to Summersville Lake and its beauty. And I can see it being a premier place nationwide,” he said. “Do we want that? That’s the question.”
Reach reporter P.R. Lockhart at email@example.com