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Coronavirus and COVID-19 News & Resources

Pandemic Hampers Summer Peak Season For Southern W.Va. Tourism, Small Businesses

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Caitlin Tan
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
New River Gorge in fall 2019. Businesses in southern W.Va., such as the outdoor tourism industry, could take a financial hit this summer because of the pandemic.

This time of year, the Hatfield McCoy trail system in southern West Virginia usually is buzzing with ATVs. In fact, Jeffrey Lusk, director of the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, said he makes almost half of his permit sales for the year from March 1 to April 30. 

But for towns and local businesses along the trail system, things are pretty quiet these days. The Hatfield McCoy trails have been closed since March 20, by an executive order from Governor Jim Justice to enforce social distancing and public health recommendations from the federal government. 

This includes Bramwell, in Mercer County, where the Bramwell Corner Shop would normally be enjoying traffic from the nearby Pocahontas Trail. 

“Our sales are just very, very low right now,” manager Mandy Fink said on Tuesday, April 21.

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Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
From A Hatfield McCoy ATV trail head in Logan County, in October 2019. The trails have been closed since March 20, 2020, due to efforts to promote social distancing.

The Corner Shop, like most restaurants throughout the state, is serving takeout orders only. 

“We have a lot of local people that love the corner shop and they eat here,” Fink said, “but we also have a lot of revenue that comes off the trails, and with the trails closed right now none of that’s happening.”

For many locally owned businesses in southern West Virginia, warmer months bring in the majority of revenue, because it is when out-of-towners are most likely to visit. 

On Monday, Gov. Jim Justice shared plans to reopen various operations on a six-week schedule, assuming the state continues to keep its cumulative COVID-19 positive test rate under 3 percent for three consecutive days. Still, local businesses will remain impacted by their time offline and the uncertainty around when they will reopen, and the restrictions they will continue to face. 

Take Adventures on the Gorge, a rafting and outdoor tourism company based in Fayette County, which is so popular in late summer that the CEO Roger Wilson described their peak season as a “100-day war.”

“It starts on June 15, and runs through roughly September 15,” Wilson said. “That's when the majority of our people are coming here.” 

Wilson’s company employs some 400 workers every year. Normally by April he would be training new guides, but this year he said he is depending on returning senior guides to save money and avoid overcrowding.

Local Businesses, Tourism Typically A Much Needed Employer

To help with paychecks for existing employees, Wilson said Adventures on the Gorge received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, through the first relief package passed by Congress.

“If we had not gotten that one, there would be about 34 people laid off immediately,” he said. “It would have made opening up for us really hard.”

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Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A group river rafting on the New River through Adventures on the Gorge in summer 2019. CEO Roger Wilson said he expects raft trips to operate around half capacity to encourage social distancing.

But, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the country’s largest small business association, about 80 percent of small businesses in the U.S. had yet to hear back about the loans they applied for, as of April 20. 

That included the corner shop in Bramwell. Manager Fink said they applied in early April, and as of April 27, the shop still had not heard anything back.

“We definitely have so many employees that cannot work at all,” Fink said, adding that the shop usually hires more people during its busier summer season. “And those of us that are working [we’re] working at least half the hours that we typically would.”

Congress passed a fourth relief package on April 23, including $321 billion for a second round of PPP loans. This was after the $349 billion Congress gave the program initially, which ran out less than two weeks after its allocation.

By Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Small Business Administration had processed nearly 476,000 loans, according to SBA spokesman Chris Hatch. He added that the loans approved so far total more than $52 billion, which is being administered by 5,200 banks and other lenders.

Director Lusk at the Hatfield McCoy Regional Trails Authority said his organization is helping businesses that partner with the trails — mostly lodging and ATV rentals — access as much capital and assistance as possible.

Many of the businesses by the trail are family-owned with small payrolls, meaning they would benefit more from an Economic Injury or Disaster Loan, or EIDL, which are geared more toward overhead costs, and less toward pay checks. Those loans have also been difficult for some to get

The trails authority has had to temporarily lay off 51 of its own full-time and part-time employees, who normally would sell permits at trailheads and keep paths clear. Lusk said as soon as the trails are allowed to reopen, all 51 employees could return to work. 

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Credit Chuck Roberts / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
ATV-riders drive down a road in Gilbert, Mingo County, in July 2017. With the nearby Hatfield McCoy Trail system closed since March 20, 2020, businesses throughout southern West Virginia are noticing less revenue than previous springs.

Missing out on permit sales in late March and much of April has amounted to a roughly $1.1 million loss, he added. 

“We’re optimistic that as the state begins to reopen, we’ll be in one of those early stages of reopening,” Lusk said.

The Main Street Struggle

Just outside Fayetteville at the Arrowhead Bike Farm, co-owner Rich Ireland said most of his workers are receiving unemployment.

But like Adventures on the Gorge, the Bike Farm, which has a bike shop, restaurant, beer garden and camping sites,also secured a small PPP loan which can be used for paychecks and some overhead costs.

Although they are not in peak season yet, Ireland said he is concerned about how many people will be vacationing this summer.

“I think we'll have a season. I don't know how good it’ll be — I don't know if we'll meet our expectations. But hopefully it'll be you know, one of those where we just took a growth year — a pause,” Ireland said.

At the Meadow Bridge Drive-In in Fayette County, owner Howard McClanahan is usually open from May to October, the first three months of which are the most important for revenue.

“We’ve just been taking our time this year because we know we’re not going to get open,” said McClanahan, who added they did not apply for a loan. “I don’t see us opening before the first of June.”

It is expensive to run a drive-in theater. McClanahan said when he first took over in the 80s, each year he needed around a couple thousand dollars just to open.  

“This past year it’s gone up to almost, say, around $9,000 just to get open,” he said.

There is a risk the pandemic will hurt them years from now. Not only is the Meadow Bridge Drive-In a longstanding business, open since the 1950s, but it is one of only a few drive-ins left in the state. 

Ireland, co-owner of the bike farm, is one of those concerned about the lifespan of the small businesses, new and old, that give West Virginia so much character, and draw tourists from around the region.

“I think it’s going to be a shame if all are left are going to be big chain restaurants or big stores,” Ireland said.

Reports indicate that quite a few nationwide chain businesses did qualify for the small business loans, but at least a few have returned them. 

Teena Merlin owns a tattoo shop in Madison, Boone County, and she was preparing to open a coffee house before non-essential businesses had to close. She said last week she was unsuccessful applying for the loans. 

The pandemic could hurt shops like her own in communities that have been trying to rebuild since the decline of coal, Merlin said.

“Main Street, in little towns like this, there are lots of little things like that, and they’re trying to revitalize communities,” she said. “This is really bad for small, struggling towns who are trying to rebuild.”

Several of the small businesses interviewed that did not qualify for a loan said they plan on re-applying again for a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars Congress has allocated in the new relief package.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member. 

This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

 

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