CLEVELAND — Debra Horne’s boyfriend asked her two questions.
No. 1: Would she ever move from Tennessee to Southwest Virginia so they could settle down on the Clinch River winding through the mountains?
No. 2: Would she marry him?
Horne said yes to both. Now, Debra and Darrell Horne own 290 feet of riverbank.
Two decades ago, Horne’s heart led her to the Clinch River Valley. But now, as mayor of small town Dungannon in Scott County, her home is proud to call itself “the heart of the Clinch” as part of a widespread campaign for Southwest Virginia localities to embrace and market their natural assets.
An initiative years in the making, the towns along the river have banded together to diversify the economy of Southwest Virginia. But the crown jewel of their efforts — turning a portion of the river into a state park — is still on the horizon.
Seeking alternatives to jobs lost
The Clinch River spans 135 miles in Virginia, stretching from Tazewell County to the Virginia-Tennessee border.
Seven towns and counting along the river have come together to protect and market the region as an outdoor recreation destination. Added together, the towns’ populations are dwarfed by the number of residents in Bristol, Virginia, but these little localities discovered their power is greater when they work together.
That’s how the Clinch River Valley Initiative was born. In 2009, when coalfields localities saw coal jobs disappearing and locals moving away, residents in these towns began discussing how to reinvent the area, said Frank Dukes, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia.
“Coal mining is certainly going to continue,” Dukes said. “The idea was not to replace coal mining, but to replace the jobs lost as coal mining has become less of a driver for the economy.”
Dukes’ department helped facilitate discussions about the future of Southwest Virginia coinciding with the start of the Great Recession. Early on, discussions included talk of reclaimed mine lands and local agriculture, but it was the idea of using the Clinch as an economic driver that came up time and again.
The river initiative officially launched after a 2010 forum on building local economies. Dozens of stakeholders involved developed an action plan with goals of improving the marketability of local economies, enhancing the river’s water quality and adding more river access points and camping spots.
At the top of the list: Create the Clinch River State Park. But even with state funding for the park on the table, there’s still work to be done, Dukes said.
“Nobody’s saying we’re done,” he said.
Dungannon, under Horne’s leadership, joined the Clinch River Valley Initiative as a “Hometown of the Clinch” last year. The "hometowns" present a united front for change, serve as environmental stewards of the river and work with their neighbor localities to market the river and the region. They also distribute and sell Clinch River paraphernalia.
Horne calls the group her “information highway” because anytime she has a question about something she can call representatives from another “hometown” to find the answer.
As far as small towns go, Dungannon is one of Virginia’s smallest with fewer than 400 residents. But the small town has big projects in the works.
In 2015, the town received a $700,000 grant for a downtown revitalization. Town leaders hired Roanoke’s Hill Studio to revive downtown Dungannon by updating building facades and adding a performance stage, farmer’s market area and more.
The river initiative started with marketing the river, but marketing the towns along the river plays just as big a role, Horne said.
“Everybody’s mindset was that coal was the only asset they had to use and that commodity has always kept Virginia people with a decent amount of money,” she said. “Now that coal’s going out, it made us realize and it made us also look to other resources that we could have that we might could bring our towns back to life again.”
Planning a park
The Clinch River State Park is moving forward, and locals and outside observers hope it will be a boon to Southwest Virginia’s economy.
Last year, Virginia’s General Assembly approved $2.5 million for the first phase of the project. The money is designated for planning and land acquisition to launch the more than 600-acre park.
The park will not be like a traditional state park with one, large plot of land. Instead, portions of the state park will be scattered along the river, and will include restrooms, camping areas, river access points and trails.
Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation is working with The Nature Conservancy to identify possible park locations and landowners who might be willing to sell some of their riverfront property, said Shannon Johnson, department spokeswoman.
“The term ‘string of pearls’ has been used to date to describe a system of pieces of land along the Clinch River corridor through Tazewell, Russell, Wise, and Scott Counties,” she said. “We anticipate that initial purchases of land for the park will be done over the next two years.”
The state park is just one piece of the whole economic development puzzle, said Brad Kreps, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program.
Ideally, the groups hope to purchase three or four plots of land in the 200- to 400-acre range to “anchor” the state park. The park will also include smaller plots of land in the 1- to 2-acre range to serve as public river access points, Kreps said.
While the state park is years away from completion, The Nature Conservancy and some towns on the Clinch are working to add more boat launch points so the public has additional river access.
Gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie pledged to complete the state park within his four-year term should he be elected in November. Gillespie, a Republican, calls Virginia’s outdoor economy an essential asset to driving up state and local tax revenue.
“I think there’s huge, untapped potential here in that our natural beauty is not just something that’s a joy for us, but it is an underutilized economic asset,” he said.
Part of that joy is lost on people from Northern Virginia because they don’t know about the natural beauty in Southwest Virginia and often spend their tourism dollars in other states, Gillespie said. It’s a matter of raising awareness of outdoor recreation destinations in Southwest Virginia and across the state he said.
Virginia tourism was a $24 billion industry in 2016, and visitor spending supported 230,000 jobs in the commonwealth.
Gillespie’s convinced the commonwealth can do better — ideally, better than North Carolina, which brings in $28 billion per year in tourism revenue.
That means driving up recreation and tourism across the commonwealth, but especially in Southwest Virginia, which has been hit hard by the decline in the coal industry.
Enter Clinch River State Park.
An economic analysis predicts the state park will attract 100,000 annual visitors by its third year and have a $2.53 million annual impact on Virginia’s economy.
Virginia’s governor could help push forward completion of the state park, Gillespie said. While the state has allocated initial funds for the project, the department of conservation will need additional dollars down the line to add park infrastructure and amenities.
“It’s the kind of thing that would take a governor’s attention,” Gillespie said. “It won’t happen with only the support of the General Assembly members.”
Conservation to build up mussels
The Clinch River Valley is a hotbed for biodiversity, particularly for its numerous species of rare, freshwater mussels.
The Clinch is home to more than 40 species of mussels, 20 of which are federally listed as endangered species.
Bearing humorously descriptive names like shiny pig toe, fluted kidney shell and Appalachian monkey-face, the mussels burrow into the gravel and sand mixture lining the river’s bottom.
The Nature Conservancy is using a 20-mile stretch of the Clinch in Cleveland in Russell County as a focus group to grow the mollusc population. The stretch of river contains about four mussels per square meter, but can support about three times that number, said Braven Beaty, an ecologist with the conservancy.
Like a sharpshooter, Beaty can easily locate the obscured mussels hiding beneath the surface. In the winter, Beaty will don a wetsuit to tend to the creatures.
Growing the mussel population is imperative to improving the river’s water quality, Beaty said. Mussels filter water almost constantly and at peak times, can filter up to a gallon of water per hour — filtering out dirt, bacteria, algae and sediment.
Mussels are also an early indicator of poor water quality, Beaty said.
“They seem to be relatively a canary in the coal mine,” he said. “They take it on the chin a little bit whenever habitat or water degradation happens, earlier than many of the river fauna that’s out here.”
The Nature Conservancy has protected 345,000 acres of commonwealth, including nearly 1,000 acres in the Cleveland area. The group's conservation efforts include educating locals on how to respect the nature around them — a mission that has translated over to the Clinch River initiative.
Part of the initiative includes educating locals and tourists about the biodiversity of the river, something Kreps hopes will factor into the state park. Kreps, who can list fact after fact about various plants and animals in the Clinch River Valley, highly encourages people to recreate on the Clinch, but wants them to recognize their actions on land and in the water can affect the natural habitat.
“It’s that sweet spot between human enjoyment and conservation," he said.
Tourism on the rise
During summer weekends, Donna Johnson works out of a train caboose alongside the river’s edge in St. Paul.
Johnson, the owner of Clinch River Adventures, rents tubes, kayaks and canoes for float trips on the Clinch. Johnson bought the business last year from another local after she saw business was booming. The number of customers has doubled and tripled at the outfitter since the previous owner opened the riverfront business in 2013.
During the average summer weekend, Johnson launches about 150 people on the river, and attracts local customers as well as tourists from other states and countries.
“I think it’s something different that this area had never offered before.” Johnson said. “It’s just not something in somebody’s backyard, necessarily that they can just go out and try.”
Locals have long known about Southwest Virginia's beauty, but out-of-state folks are starting to discover the region is an outdoor destination, said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott.
At a conference this summer, a man from Maryland rushed up to Kilgore. Excited to have found someone from Virginia, the man asked Kilgore if he had ever heard of Devil's Bathtub — a swimming hole in Duffield. Kilgore was happy to report the bathtub-shaped water feature is located in his House of Delegates district.
"I think the word is getting out," he said. "It’s a beautiful area. We’ve got a lot of trails, a lot of hiking, a lot of river."
As outdoor recreation booms in Southwest Virginia, so too, does the craft beer scene. Local officials recently announced the creation of a craft beer trail that stretches from near Smith Mountain Lake southwest to Bristol, Tennessee.
The Southwest Virginia Mountain Brew Trail, which is designed to attract tourists to local craft breweries to brewpubs, includes 16 breweries. Just like Southwest Virginia, the brewery trail is expansive and a traveler could spend more than 10 hours driving to all of the stops.
At Sugar Hill Brewing Company in St. Paul, visitors sip beer from pint glasses that proudly proclaim everything on tap is “BREWED WITH WATER FROM VIRGINIA’S HIDDEN RIVER.”
The beer at Sugar Hill, the only brewpub in a seven-county-region, is created with water from the Clinch.
“The reason it’s called the Hidden River is because people just took it for granted,” said Sugar Hill owner Greg Bailey.
Greg Bailey and his wife Jennifer Bailey opened Sugar Hill last year, after noticing their son’s home-brewed beers were a hit among the locals. While their son has since moved to Alaska for a job, the Baileys took a chance and opened the brewpub.
Now, most of their customers visit from beyond a 30-mile radius and in the summer, many of them drop by for food and beer before or after spending the afternoon on the Clinch.
When the Baileys moved to the area a decade ago, they rarely saw people on the river, and they certainly never thought of the Clinch an outdoor recreation hub. They, too, had never been on the river.
Now the couple owns a canoe and kayaks. After St. Paul, passed an ordinance allowing people to ride ATVs through town, the Baileys purchased an ATV so they could ride the nearby Spearhead and Mountain View trails.
“We have to re-imagine our future,” Greg Bailey said. “We can’t just rely on coal so we try to do everything that we’re trying to get other people to do here.”