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MONEY TRAIL

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By April Wright, Reporter

The Crooked Road initiative, launched along U.S. 58 in Southwest Virginia in 2002, has brought in nearly 264,000 visitors to the region so far this year and the economic impact totals $23 million each year, according to a 2008 assessment of Virginia's heritage music trail that was presented at a press conference Dec. 9 at the Rex Theater in Galax.

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The historic theater's stage is one of the music venues on the trail.

The Crooked Road is a driving trail and an economic development initiative that promotes and attracts visitors to Southwest Virginia through its scenic beauty and significant areas where old-time and bluegrass music were born and are still a big part of the culture.

The Crooked Road receives annual financial support from 10 counties including Carroll, Dickenson, Floyd, Franklin, Grayson, Lee, Patrick, Scott, Washington and Wise; three cities including Bristol, Galax, and Norton; and 19 towns including Abingdon, Appalachia, Big Stone Gap, Clintwood, Coeburn, Damascus, Floyd, Fries, Gate City, Glade Spring, Haysi, Hillsville, Independence, Jonesville, Pennington Gap, Pound, Rocky Mount, Stuart and Wise.

To arrive at the facts for the study, Sustainable Development Consulting International (SDCI) of Lebanon conducted 253 interviews with visitors to five major Crooked Road venues and one affiliated partner during 13 separate occasions from May to September this year.

Robert Jones, project manager of SDCI, said Crooked Road communities showed a significant increase in tourism spending and new business development, as opposed to non-Crooked Road communities. And those with the major venues — such as Galax, Floyd and Clintwood — showed the biggest increases.

In fact, Jones revealed that accommodation spending increased by 90 percent from 2003-2007 in Floyd and by 232 percent in Galax from 2004-2007. In addition, all major venues had an estimated visitation of 109,450 just this year.

Direct spending, he said, was nearly $13 million, but the total economic impact was $23 million when figuring that money is circulated back into The Crooked Road region's economy through local investment, performing arts tickets, food and beverages, retail and accommodation sales. The $23 million figure is equivalent to creating 445 full-time jobs, Jones said. And wages and sales tax benefits are greater than $400,000 per year to the state.

“This project that is built on the traditional music is so unique to our region of the world in Southwest Virginia. We couldn’t have a better group to set the tone for today,” said Jim Baldwin, president of The Crooked Road board of directors, who introduced Hello Stranger and Dale Jett to perform an old-time tune on the Rex stage.

Jett — grandson of Janette Carter of the Carter Family — explained how The Crooked Road has been beneficial, not only to the economy, but also to bluegrass and old-time musicians.

“The Crooked Road has allowed those musicians to play at home, instead of having to go to the ends of the earth to let their music be heard,” said Jett, who grew up just miles away from U.S. 58. “I've seen a big impact on tourism, and The Crooked Road has given musicians the opportunity to play at home.”

The family's Carter Fold in Hiltons is one of the music trail's venues.

Baldwin said The Crooked Road began when Todd Christensen, deputy director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, was trying to figure out how to lure people to Clintwood through a downtown project that involved a beautiful old home that needed to be used.

Comparing it to the film “The Field of Dreams,” Christensen heard a voice that said “If you build it, they will come,” said Baldwin.

Soon after, Christensen met for the first time with musicologist Joe Wilson of the Blue Ridge Music Center at a jam session in Asheville, N.C.

Christensen and Wilson came up with the idea of the Ralph Stanley Museum.

“They will come,” Wilson told Christensen.

Then, a meeting was held at the Carter Fold, where 20 people showed up, including Debbie Robinson, former director of the Blue Ridge Music Center. These individuals wanted to connect Southwest Virginia areas, and Wilson came up with “The Crooked Road.”

Another meeting in Abingdon brought together local government officials from the Southwest Virginia region. Two goals were realized: to make Southwest Virginia a nationally known tourist destination and to triple the region's cultural heritage tourism in four years.

“Not only did it become true,” said Baldwin. “But Southwest Virginia became an internationally-known destination. The region is a world-class destination, like Tuscany. People hear music and see our communities and it’s like they’re breathing different air.”

Southwest Virginia and The Crooked Road have been mentioned in National Geographic, USA Today and countless newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

A map showed that visitors are coming from as far away as central North Carolina to the Blue Ridge Music Center, from Tennessee to the Carter Fold, from areas such as Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., to the Rex.

“We found that people want to do more than just listen to music,” said Jones, when giving a PowerPoint presentation on the study. “They also want outdoor experiences, to make trips to other Crooked Road destinations — and that's why it's important that communities cross-market themselves.”

While in the region, most visitors preferred shopping for music-related items and arts and crafts, which goes along with 'Round The Mountain, an initiative that attracts tourists to local artisans, Jones noted. Based on the food and beverage, fuel, lodging and other elements, the average party spent $366 while visiting The Crooked Road area.

Over the past four years, the Town of Floyd was able to make $4 million investments that were spent on tourism-related infrastructure, Clintwood has seen a $3.8 million investment in downtown and Galax $1.3 million.

While not all of this investment is specifically related to The Crooked Road, the ability of these particular communities to support this level of investment demonstrates the demand and capacity for tourism development, notes the executive summary. It demonstrates that even small communities — Floyd and Clintwood have a combined population of less than 2,000 — with limited financial resources can support a tourism restructuring strategy with funds leveraged from both private and public sector sources.

Tourism-related development is helping to restructure the local economy, and The Crooked Road is playing a significant role, Jones said.

“The good thing about The Crooked Road is that it can’t be outsourced,” said Jones. “And local communities don’t have to spend millions of dollars to attract this business because it's already here and there are more opportunities to capitalize on.

“It also has less tangible benefits, in which The Crooked Road improves quality of life for locals and businesses trying to come here to attract new employees in both manufacturing and high-end jobs.”

Carter Fold visitors, he continued, will spend $2.17 million on food and beverages in the region while visiting The Crooked Road in 2008, and Floyd Country Store visitors will spend more than $4 million in accommodation while visiting the region.

“Doing things regionally is hard,” said Bill Shelton, director of DHCD, “But it's gratifying to see that these communities are coming together to create a great benefit.”

“The Crooked Road will continue to benefit the region in the future, and I look forward to the cultural museum being built in Abingdon that really showcases this area,” Del. Bill Carrico (R-Fries) announced.

In a press release, Governor Tim Kaine stated that the music trail assessment “affirms the importance of new tourism initiatives and represents a significant economic impact to Southwest Virginia. The Crooked Road is a successful economic engine that significantly boosts regional tourism efforts by showcasing our rich heritage and culture.”

A second press conference was held last Wednesday at Carter Fold and featured Twin County musicians Wayne Henderson, Gerald Anderson, Spencer Strickland and Jimmy Edmonds, with performances sponsored by the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

In addition to state and local officials, The Crooked Road receives major support from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.