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Rural Development Process

For recreation economies

The Monongahela National Forest, in partnership with West Virginia University and USDA Rural Development, is bringing diverse stakeholders together to create a shared recreation vision for the region.
people in a meeting
  • Establishing a Shared Vision for Change Our vision is to help community stakeholders invest in a shared recreation resource to generate positive outcomes for the health and vitality of this region.
map of mon forest area
  • Mapping the Landscape Analysis of baseline data to identify key issues and gaps, through completition of a community assesment report and recreation economies asset map.
colorful bar graph
  • Participatory Research Identifying indicators applicable to recreation economies, measuring performance indicators, and sharing an approach to sucess.
mon forest bear logo
  • Regional Branding & Identity A regional identity system and style guide were developed that allow residents an opportunity to be part of the forest story.
artist rendering of urban planning
  • Business and Entrepreneurial Development The Mon Forest Business Initiative offers business advice and funding assistance for professional services to any businesses located within the 10 counties of the MNF.
group of mountain bikes
people listening to a presentation
  • What's Next Looking to the future: defining goals, strategy, and an action plan

Establishing a Shared Vision for Change

The complex nature of most social problems belies the idea that any single program or organization, however well managed and funded, can singlehandedly create lasting large-scale change.  Collective impact is generated by collaborative efforts that have achieved substantial impact on large scale social problems. This project has utilized principles found in  Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work, as published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

The Monongahela National Forest (MNF) in partnership with West Virginia University, and USDA Rural Development began bringing diverse stakeholders together in 2017 to create a shared recreation vision for each county and the greater region surrounding the MNF. Creating this dialogue with business owners and community leaders is important in understanding how we can move forward together to make full use of forest and community assets to attract and create a vibrant community experience for local residents and visitors. Producing a local climate where communities can rally around the recreational and cultural assets of the MNF will facilitate rural prosperity and economic development. 

Monongahela National Forest Recreation Economies Steering Committee members:
 Doug Arbogast West Virginia University Extension Service Rural Tourism Specialist
 Jack Tribble  USFS District Ranger, Greenbrier District
 Cindy Sandeno  USFS District Ranger, Marlinton Ranger District
 Brandi Bramwell USDA Rural Development Director of Business & Cooperative Programs & Rural Development Coordinator
 Emily Wilson-Hauger
Woodlands Development Group

The MNF Recreation Economies steering committee seeks to cultivate relations across lands and forest gateway communities that will enhance the economy and quality of life for residents and visitors while sustaining the quality of the environment and society.  Having the resources, infrastructure, and the energy of local community groups will allow for loftier goals to be actively pursued. Creating partnerships and a culture of chasing goals as a community will open these towns to more resources and greater success. On May 2, 2017 a small gathering of community leaders, business owners, and non-profit partner organization representatives met to begin this discussion in the town of Davis.  Subsequent meetings were convened in Marlinton, Elkins, Richwood, Franklin, and Cowen.  The outcomes of these meetings helped to shape a recreation vision to help guide the project. 

Mon Forest Towns’ vision is to build and maintain a strong economy that thrives off sustainable recreation, tourism, healthy landscapes, and active land management while preserving each town’s character. Our mission is to collaboratively grow a strong, sustainable recreation economy that enhances the quality of life for residents and visitors by providing the best outdoor experience.

To pursue this vision, recreation economy stakeholder teams were established in 10 Mon Forest Towns: Thomas, Davis, Parsons, Elkins, Petersburg, Franklin, Cowen, Richwood, Marlinton, White Sulphur Springs.  In 2017 and 2018, these teams actively participated in visioning, planning, and branding meetings.  On June 13, 2019, 85 stakeholders from throughout the forest met to exchange ideas and promote common goals at the Mon Forest Towns Summit. Representatives from several of the towns gave presentations highlighting their unique viewpoints.  Five broad goals for developing recreation economies in the MNF were established. 

See town presentations from the summit

Seven Goals for Developing Recreation Economies:
Goal #1: Improve community health and wellness through promotion of outdoor recreation activities and infrastructure improvement.
Goal #2: Develop an outdoor recreation entrepreneurial culture by supporting the creation and growth of local recreation and tourism-based businesses.
Goal #3: Promote the uniqueness of the Mon Forest Towns and recreation opportunities in the region through collaborative regional marketing.
Goal #4: Develop world-class trails and outdoor recreation opportunities in the Mon Forest Towns region
Goal #5: Increase employment opportunities in recreation related fields to build a year-round recreation economy
Goal #6: Create a downtown experience that recreationists would enjoy
Goal #7: Develop a Sustainable Partnership Framework

Creating the Backbone Organization

A formal partnership agreement crafted by the steering committee was introduced at the Summit.  The purpose of the partnership is to serve as a catalyst and forum for the development and delivery of an integrated regional recreation partnership.  The partnership agreement includes operational guidelines that cover how the partnership conducts business and interacts with the steering committee, town representatives, partnership organizations, and how the partnership can grow to include new members.

Following the Mon Forest Towns Summit, current Forest Supervisor Shawn Cochran requested that the steering committee members attend town council meetings to talk about the Mon Forest Towns partnership and ask the councils to designate an official partnership representative for each town. The list of town reps is below:

Thomas – Erika Smith, Treasurer
Davis – Andy Snyder
Parsons – Dorothy Judy
Elkins – Taira Landavere
Franklin – Ciara Lambert
Petersburg – Bob McCalley
Marlinton – Sam Felton, Chair
White Sulphur Springs – Bruce Bowling, Vice Chair
Cowen – Kent Walker
Richwood – Chris Tiney, Secretary   

The Mon Forest Towns partnership meets quarterly with the steering committee to coordinate and implement MFT activities.

Download Mon Forest Towns Partnership Memorandum (PDF)

Marketing Committee

The Mon Forest Towns Marketing Committee includes representatives from the Convention and Visitors Bureaus in the region as well as other local stakeholders interested in supporting regional branding and marketing efforts.  The marketing committee meets monthly and provides oversight and coordination to the Mon Forest Towns website, regional signage plan, regional marketing plan, and social media

The Marketing Committee chair is Cara Rose, Executive Director of the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Grants Committee  

The Mon Forest Towns grants committee supports the growth and sustainability of the Mon Forest Towns partnership by identifying and securing funding to support projects that lead to measurable improvements in the recreation economy in the Mon Forest Towns region.  The MFT grants committee includes representatives from the Economic Development Authorities, Planning and Development Councils, non-profit organizations, local foundations, and state agencies.  The MFT grants committee meets monthly.  

Mapping the Landscape and Analyzing Baseline Data to Identify Key Issues and Gaps

Community Assessments

The WVU Rural Tourism Specialist developed a recreation economies gateway community assessment form. The FS Resource Assistants met with local stakeholders to conduct gateway community assessments in order to identify each community’s strengths and weaknesses related to recreation economies. Assessment categories included: trail to town connection, safety, parking, bike parking, signage, business/services, marketing/promotion, general impressions, streetscape, storefronts, amenities, character, trailheads and trail access among other items. A report highlighting common strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities was published and presented to the communities.

Download the Gateway Community Assessment Report

Asset Mapping

The goal of this asset mapping work is to provide a comprehensive inventory and mapped representation of available tourism and recreation resources. A related analysis of recreation infrastructure needs and gaps is included. In addition to gaps in existing amenities, gaps in available data sources may also be identified through this process. The results of the asset mapping can then be used in promotional materials and online mapping to further community and economic development for the region.

Specifically, tourism and recreation related assets include local and state managed recreational facilities (parks, trails, recreational sites, other specially designated areas), cultural venues, and historic sites; as well as business locations of interest to visitors including restaurants, accommodations, specialty retail establishments, grocery stores, convenience stores, agri-tourism sites, and more.

Mapping of these resources involves developing an up-to-date, comprehensive inventory of the assets themselves, including recording an accurate spatial location for each feature. Community involvement in the asset mapping process can include data collection on additional assets, classification of status of each asset (i.e. “visitor ready”), as well as identification of potential data gaps. Results of asset mapping can be presented to interested parties and/or the public using interactive online mapping tools such as ArcGIS Online and other similar web mapping platforms.

This work is being completed by the Natural Resource Analysis Center (NRAC) within the Davis College at West Virginia University. The NRAC is a multi-disciplinary research facility that conducts geospatially-based research, teaching and service focused on environmental and natural resource issues for West Virginia and the surrounding region. NRAC has supported many past projects in recreation and tourism data development and GIS mapping support for West Virginia, including the successful designation of the Snowshoe Highlands IMBA Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association.

Community Design

The Community Engagement Lab (CEL) in the School of Design and Community Development provides technical assistance in the community design and planning process. All projects undertaken by the CEL are participatory and capacity-building, bringing the expertise of faculty and the energy of students to solve critical problems of design in communities.  Faculty and students propose to take a regional approach to design & planning, finding common themes and connections to amplify in considering alternative futures for community development. CEL faculty possess experience and expertise in community design, planning & visioning facilitating the process in partnership with local stakeholders in order to build local capacity and focused strategic planning.

Download Community Design Case Study (PDF)

Participatory Research 

The WVU Rural Tourism Design Team conducts transdisciplinary, mixed-methods participatory research to help guide tourism destinations in planning and decision-making.  Data is collected using both quantitative and qualitative research methods in order to solicit input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders. 

Benefits of a mixed methods approach to the study of sustainable tourism include promoting societal change, managing social desirability, creating more robust data through stakeholder triangulation, and fostering sustainability through interdisciplinary cooperation (Molina-Azorín and Font, 2016).  Triangulation of research findings can increase the trustworthiness of tourism research (Belhassen and Santos, 2006).  The WVU Rural Tourism Design Team’s transdisciplinary, mixed methods, multi-phase research methodology is featured in our recent publication in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. 

Arbogast, D., Butler, P., Faulkes, E., Eades, D., Deng, J., Maumbe, K., & Smaldone, D. (2020). Using social design to visualize outcomes of sustainable tourism planning: a multiphase, transdisciplinary approach.  International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. 

Economic Impact Analysis

In order to determine if environmental, economic, and social conditions are being positively impacted by recreation economies initiatives, metrics including employment, unemployment, income, household earnings, educational attainment, and population change (both broadly and for specific demographics, i.e., 25-34 year olds) must be tracked annually for individual counties and the larger region.  Changes in visitation and visitor spending; changes or anticipated changes to employment, business spending, worker and proprietor incomes, etc.; and industry trends and local issues should be considered by local stakeholders to encourage growth and maintain the competitiveness of local recreation and tourism businesses in the broader economy.

Mon Forest Towns Economic and Quality of Life Indicators Report

Regional Branding and Marketing

Creating a Regional Identity

A branding of the symbiotic relationship of these communities with the Forest could help continue the benefits of working together that could grow the economies of the towns and promote environmentally responsible travel as well as sustainable planning.  Working with communities and Forest Service, a brand was co-designed that residents could see as opportunities to be part of the forest story.

Such a system will allow for cooperation among communities with a vision of offering a week of experiences for visitors that allow for towns who identify with nearby attractions such as the Cass Railroad or Seneca Rocks to be recognized as unique within a trail of linked opportunities.

Meetings were facilitated by WVU Graphic Design and Rural Tourism Specialist in each MNF gateway community in 2018 to gather local stakeholder input into the process and co-design a regional identity. Local stakeholders were guided through the social design process and asked to help design an identity that will unite the gateway communities and also promote the unique aspects of each town. An identity system and style guide were finalized in early 2019. 

Funding was secured to design and install a welcome/gateway sign for each of the current participating Mon Forest Towns. In addition to the gateway signs, funding from the US Forest Service and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation provides mini-grants for each town to support priority signage projects including wayfinding, kiosks, interpretive signs, a billboard, and rack cards.  A WVU Graphic Design student, Skylar Spence, is working with Eve Faulkes, chair of the Graphic Design program, and the communities to design signage.  In addition, a grant from the Central Appalachian Network supports merchandise including bumper stickers and window clings. 

A marketing committee was established in 2020 which includes participation from each of the Convention and Visitors Bureaus in the region along with other strategic partners.  The marketing committee is working with the WVU Graphic Design program to develop a website that will go live in fall 2020 and include an interactive asset map, stories, and detailed information for each town.  Stay tuned as additional regional branding and marketing initiatives unfold. 

website screenshot

View the Mon Forest Towns Style Guide 

Business and Entrepreneurial Development

The Mon Forest Business Initiative  

With funding support from an ARC/EDA/Benedum grant, the Woodlands Development Group and Natural Capital Investment Fund, Mon Forest Business Initiative offers business advice and funding assistance for professional services to any businesses located within the 10 counties of the Monongahela National Forest region of West Virginia.  Below is a brief summary of program accomplishments to date:

  • Businesses assisted in the last year – 48 (advisors one-on-one assistance, third-party TA assistance, and group trainings)
  • Communities served – 21 (Beverly, Canaan, Cassity, Circleville, Davis, Duo, Durbin, Elkins, Franklin, Lewisburg, Mt. Storm, Montrose, Parsons, Petersburg, Philippi, Richwood, Ronceverte, Thomas, Valley Bend, Webster Springs, White Sulphur Springs)
  • Jobs created – 8.5
  • Jobs retained – 27
  • Loans approved - $983,500 (7 closed totaling $599,500, 3 in underwriting)

Interpretive Guide Training   

With funding support from the USFS Tucker Community Foundation agreement 10 Canaan Valley Master Naturalists were able to attend a National Association of Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training offered by WVU’s Rural Tourism Specialist and become Certified Interpretive Guides.  The interpretive programs they developed were offered at Canaan Valley State Park in the spring, summer, and fall of 2018.  A 2019 Flex-e-Grant from the West Virginia Development Office will provide funding for 15 additional guides from the MNF to become Certified Interpretive Guides.  The four-day Certified Interpretive Guide Training is being offered to provide a certification in interpretation through the National Association of Interpretation.  The NAI CIG training and certification is being recognized as the standard for interpretive guides across the country and internationally. 

Recreation Infrastructure Development

Snowshoe-Highlands Ride Center 

In 2018, a partnership was established with Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Pocahontas County CVB, US Forest Service, Poca Trails, WVU, IMBA, Town of Marlinton, Pocahontas County Commission, Greenbank NRAO, WV State Parks and Forests, and surrounding communities. The vision is to become the hub of a thriving mountain biking community by making Pocahontas County, WV and the surrounding region a marquee biking destination. Project partners collaborated in 2018 to conduct a comprehensive inventory of mountain bike trails and classify them according to difficulty level and develop a database and ARC GIS online map which includes trails, other recreation resources, and supporting services and amenities.

This information was then entered into the IMBA Ride Center application and organized according to their application criteria and submitted to IMBA in July, 2018. IMBA conducted a comprehensive Ride Center assessment in the spring of 2019 and announced in early August 2019 that the newest recipient of their IMBA Ride Center™ designation is the Snowshoe Highlands Ride Center located in Pocahontas County, West Virginia awarded Bronze level.

Snowshoe Highlands Center Ride Score Level is Silver

According to the Ride Center assessment report, IMBA recognized that a strong coalition of stakeholders, including commercial operations (Snowshoe Resort), local advocates (Pocahontas Trails), and land managers (United States Forest Service) is working towards improving the quality and quantity of trails in the region. According Dave Wiens, IMBA Executive Director, “It is our pleasure to welcome Snowshoe Highlands as IMBA’s newest Ride Center, and first Ride Center in West Virginia. The IMBA Ride Center designation solidifies the enthusiasm for mountain biking in Snowshoe Highlands and recognizes it as one of today's exceptional mountain bike destinations.” More information can be found at IMBA's  website.   

In 2020 the Snowshoe Highlands Area Recreation Coalition (SHARC) was formed with the goal to achieve Silver level Ride Center designation in 2020 and develop a strategic plan for regional trail and service/amenity improvements in order to become the first Gold level Ride Center on the east coast.

A recommendation from the Ride Center report was to “Add bike-specific singletrack systems close to downtowns. Most of the riding occurs far from towns, the more connectivity mountain biking has with the local population the better the benefits. Trails close to towns are also a way to ensure visitors are spending time on main streets and in businesses.” A grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation provides funding for IMBA Trail Solutions to work with SHARC to develop a detailed plan for purpos- built mountain bike trails on a section of MNF land near the town of Marlinton in the Marlinton/White Sulphur Ranger District. This project will provide technical assistance from IMBA Trail Solutions who has extensive experience working on large-scale projects with multiple stakeholders including the USDA Forest Service. The plan would focus on developing stacked loop purpose-built mountain bike trails. Trail planning and design will conclude in spring 2021.

Performance Agendas

In 2020 a Performance Agenda will be developed for Mon Forest Towns which includes a shared vision for tourism and goals, objectives, and action strategies with listed responsible parties as well as the development of a mini-grant program, assistance program for project partners, and identification of needed additional resources. In addition to the development of the Performance Agenda, funding was received through a grant from the Benedum Foundation to incorporate the Mon Forest Towns identity system into a regional signage plan, finish the Mon Forest Towns website and regional asset map, and conduct trail planning in partnership with the International Mountain Biking Association to connect communities to trails and capture economic opportunities for mountain bike trail development.

WV Community Development Hub HUB CAP Program 

Through  WV Community Development Hub HUB CAP ProgramThrough the support of the USDA Rural Community Development Initiative program, the One Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the WV Community Development Hub has completed three rounds of its HubCAP Communities of Achievement program, providing multi-year community development coaching, technical assistance and project execution support to 21 communities in West Virginia. Each iteration of the program has been an improvement on the previous round, improving and refining the program to ensure that the highest quality of support is provided to each new class. In Fall 2020, The Hub will launch the fourth round of our HubCAP program working with the communities of Cowen, Franklin, Petersburg, Elkins, Marlinton and White Sulphur Springs. 

Resources Attained 

  • $55,000 USFS Joint Chiefs funding.  Supported WVU community engagement to provide meeting facilitation, asset mapping, interpretive guide training, student support, and develop the Mon Forest Towns brand.
  • $8,000 Flex-e-grant from West Virginia Development Office to WVU to support asset mapping for IMBA Ride Center.  
  • $3,446 WVU Community Engagement Grant for community design in Marlinton, WV
  • $7,500 WVU Davis/Extension College seed grant to develop recreation economy indicators of success
  • $8,000 Flex-e-Grant for 15 guides to become Certified Interpretive Guides. 
  • Woodlands Development Group and Natural Capital Investment Fund secured  $1.3 million grant from ARC, EDA, and Benedum to support entrepreneurial development in the MNF gateway communities. 
  • $185,000 Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation Grant in 2020 to support development of a performance agenda, website, asset map, signage plan, signage mini-grants, and MTB trail planning under resources attained. 
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