Senator- W.Va. lost 90,000 jobs during COVID; regained 60,000

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By Mary Catherine Brooks

CNHI News W.Va.

Covid-19 changed everything – from the way people interact with family and friends, to the way they work or don’t work, to the way they vacation and “get away from it all.”

The global pandemic also changed health care, education, corporations and industries, along with the nation’s work ethic.

“Covid absolutely pounded us, but the federal government paid for it,” said state Senator David “Bugs” Stover, R-Wyoming.

“Covid changed everything. It changed the way we work. We lost some of our friends and neighbors to Covid. It’s been terrible.

“Statewide, we lost 94,000 jobs during Covid,” Stover noted. “We’ve gained 60,000 of those back now, but a lot of those jobs are in new things.

“For example, now you can go into Pineville and rent a kayak to ride the Guyandotte. You couldn’t do that before.”

The state is projecting a 1 percent increase per year in employment across West Virginia through 2025, Stover noted.

“Tourism went away in West Virginia and in Wyoming County during Covid, but a trend hit that was, perhaps, unexpected,” Stover said. “Folks got cabin fever. Then, the restrictions began to lessen a bit.

“As Covid went away, people thought rural places, like West Virginia, would be good, safe places to get away.

“People who might have taken a cruise or went to Vegas came here instead, where they thought there would be fewer people and there were a lot of fun things to do outdoors. And outdoors was much safer.

“Our campgrounds filled up, our lodges, cabins and vacation houses filled up, and our restaurants were busy again.

“By the same token, people in this area learned to do things that were close by – again because the outdoors was safer than standing in a line somewhere else.”

From biking to boating, from hiking to hunting, from fishing to kayaking, the county’s outdoor resources have something for nearly everyone.

Among the county’s outdoor offerings:

• Twin Falls Resort State Park features a 47-room mountaintop lodge with king suites, a gift shop, nature center, conference and banquet rooms, and a full-service restaurant overlooking the 18-hole championship golf course.

The park also boasts rustic camp sites as well as cabins that provide privacy, stone fireplaces, hardwood floors, in modern facilities that range from two to four bedrooms.

The park also boasts nearly 30 miles of hiking/biking trails.

An 1830s-era pioneer farm on the park is one of the most photographed scenes in West Virginia.

• The R.D. Bailey Lake project includes the lake, the dam and surrounding property, encompassing 19,309 acres.

The Visitor’s Center sits 365 feet above the dam and houses exhibits concerning the dam project, from the beginning, and its flood control.

The lake has 17 miles of shoreline with 630 acres of surface.

Open to boaters and fishermen year-round, R.D. Bailey Lake is home to largemouth bass, striped bass, walleye, tiger muskie, catfish, crappie, bluegill, stripers, and panfish.

While state record-breaking-size bass have been caught in the lake, the project is also known for the trophy bucks which sprint through the lush forests.

Designed to provide flood protection for the lower Guyandotte River basin, the lake project also provides year-round recreational activities that include hiking, biking, picnicking, and camping.

• Hatfield-McCoy Recreational Trails offer a 1,000-mile ATV, off-road system that winds through the coalfields.

Named for the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, the trails are located on or near historical sites such as Blair Mountain and Matewan.

• Coal Heritage Trail is part of the National Coal Heritage Area. The scenic highway snakes across 190 miles in 13 counties, while revealing the often turbulent history of southern West Virginia’s coalfields, its miners and coal companies as well as their social and economic legacies.

• Virginian Railway Heritage Trail, which extends from Norfolk, Va., to Deep Water, W.Va., was created to locate and identify surviving structures and facilities of Virginian Railroad, which merged into Norfolk & Western in 1959.

The trail provides visitors a first-hand look into railroad history in Virginia and West Virginia.

• Great Eastern Trail is a hiking trail that extends 1,600 miles from Alabama to New York, crossing nine states.

Still under development, the trail is formed by connecting a network of hiking trails.

North of Georgia, the route runs parallel to, and slightly west of, the Appalachian Trail.

• Guyandotte (River) Water Trail begins at Stonecoal Junction (on the Wyoming/Raleigh County border) and ends 160 miles downstream at the Ohio River.

The Guyandotte River flows through rugged mountain regions, often surrounded by thick forests, peppered with ghost towns and coal mining relics.

A series of river parks – constructed by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) staff and volunteers, under the direction of Dewey Houck, RAIL president – in Wyoming County provide river access points to improve fishing, kayaking/canoeing, and other water recreation activities along the Guyandotte.

“We’ve lost some of our old, traditional things in this county – like coal mining, the railroad, natural gas and timber, but those are all coming back now – and are predicted to come back in a big way,” Stover said.

“A lot of businesses in the county and across the state closed and will never reopen because of Covid.

“But look what we’ve gained. People got a taste of what we have here and they want more of it,” Stover emphasized.

“We have people now who see the opportunities in this ‘new normal’ and they are moving here, buying properties here. The cost of houses is going up for the first time in years.

“There are people who see this as a golden opportunity to seriously invest in things related to our outdoor recreation.

“A lot of that goes back to the Coalfields Expressway coming into Mullens,” Stover said. “That road has opened this area to the rest of the country.”

The Coalfields Expressway is Wyoming County’s first four-lane highway. Gov. Jim Justice opened the new road into Mullens in 2020.

Since that time, traffic into the small town has significantly increased and continues to do so.

Justice broke ground Aug. 1 on another section of the Coalfields Expressway – this time on Indian Ridge, the border between McDowell and Wyoming counties. This 5.12-mile section will be McDowell County’s first four-lane highway.

Designated as U.S. 121, the Coalfields Expressway will traverse 62 miles across McDowell, Wyoming and Raleigh counties in West Virginia when completed, and another 51 miles in Virginia, from Pound, in Wise County, through Dickenson and Buchanan counties.

Once all planned sections of the Coalfields Expressway are completed, it will connect the West Virginia Turnpike in Beckley with U.S. 23 at Slate, Va.

“We are going to have an increase in tourism the likes of which people never dreamed,” Stover emphasized. “It will be vast compared to what it has been.

“But when you have new growth like this, you have to be careful that you don’t destroy the old things like mining, the railroad, natural gas and timber.

“Even a maximum increase in tourism will only impact the county’s economy about the same as one small coal mine, but we’ve added an industry now that is going to be around forever,” Stover said.

“We have the great outdoors now and, with the Coalfields Expressway open, the time is right for Wyoming County to embrace the ‘new normal,” he said.

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