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Study outlines tourism potential

A new study highlights the economic development potential presented by the Boy Scouts' Summit Bechtel Reserve in Raleigh County, recommends expanding efforts to attract retirees to West Virginia, and points out the importance of an advertising program that promotes tourist attractions in the state.

AECOM Technical Services Inc. of Arlington, Va., prepared the West Virginia Ten Year Tourism Plan for the state Division of Tourism under a competitively bid $149,892 contract. The state Department of Commerce paid for it.

The study was released at a Shepherdstown tourism conference in October and is posted online at http://wvtourism.com. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Industry Info."

Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver said AECOM's study is exciting for the tourism sector, which employs about 44,000 West Virginians and annually contributes over $4 billion to the state's economy. "We know every county in the state has potential - there is recreation, culture and heritage available in every corner of our state.

"I think one of the stronger points in the entire report is it talks a lot about our existing products and how we can strengthen and further develop them," Carver said. "Also, we have access to so many people."

The study says, "Within the states that are contiguous to West Virginia, the population totals over 42 million people. Proximity and an excellent regional highway system make West Virginia and its attractions highly accessible to these potential visitors. West Virginia is particularly well-situated to capitalize on the trend in which travelers are taking more, shorter duration trips."

Carver said, "If you look around, for instance at the Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-northern Virginia metro area, there's certainly a great audience there to try to educate about our opportunities - rafting, skiing, our forests - depending on which geographic area you're talking about."

The initial phase of the Boy Scouts' Summit Bechtel Reserve is scheduled to open next year with 50,000 scouts and 200,000 visitors expected for the National Scout Jamboree.

"We have been working with people in the community close to the Summit for a couple of years," Carver said. "I think this is going to give us an opportunity to showcase the state to these young people and their families. I'm interested to see how this will impact us 10, 20 years down the road. I think as these young people become adults, they may look to come to school here. It may be a place where they want to raise a family, start a business."

The study ranked tourism products according to potential. Strengthening the state as a top retirement and second-home market ranked among the top strategies for the state.

"In West Virginia, the potential for growth in the retirement industry is high," the study said. "Among the key factors that retirees consider in selecting a retirement location are proximity to family and friends and cost of living. West Virginia is very attractive in both regards.

"The economic benefits of retirees in a community have been well documented," the study said. "Retiree residents generally pay the full range of state and local taxes but consume little in the way of public services, and they frequently buy or build new homes."

Current efforts to attract retirees by Retire West Virginia, a private organization, should be increased or the retirement recruitment function should be put under state control, the study said.

Also, the state should consider changing the way second homes are taxed, the study said. "One factor that second home owners consider in their purchasing decision is property taxes. The current tax law in West Virginia essentially doubles the tax rate on second homes by classifying homes that do not serve as primary residences as commercial property."

Carver called the retirement findings "a little bit of a surprise," and said she believes they will prompt some of the tourism leaders in the state to think more about the topic.

The study also recommends strengthening the tourism sector by increasing the funding available for the Matching Advertising Partnership Program to $10 million annually with an annual inflation escalator.

This program was created by the Legislature in 1995. It matches money private companies commit to advertise their tourist attractions. The program originally was funded with 3 percent of video lottery revenue. Over time, video lottery revenue was directed to other purposes and now only 1.375 percent goes to the program.

Funding has declined from $11.8 million in 2007 to $9.3 million in 2011 and is expected to continue declining as the state's position as a gambling destination wanes.

Since 2008, money to operate the Highway Courtesy Patrol has come out of the program's budget.

Carver said that Randy Worls, a longtime leader of the tourism sector in Wheeling, refers to advertising as infrastructure for tourism.

She said the Matching Advertising Partnership Program gives many small tourism businesses an opportunity to advertise their product. It's an opportunity they might not otherwise be able to afford, she said.

The West Virginia Tourism Commission directs the program. Former state Sen. Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, chairs the commission.

"We're trying to educate people about the importance of the Matching Advertising Partnership Program," Craigo said. "We really have to address that.

"The other thing that makes sense to me is attracting older Americans to come here," Craigo said. "Retirees require health services but don't require schools. They typically have insurance. They have a steady income that won't go down because they won't be laid off. The suggestion in the study is that there are a lot of areas in West Virginia that are conducive to this and West Virginia should be a leader."

As for the Scouts' Summit Bechtel Reserve, "I believe that's going to be a game changer for West Virginia from a perception standpoint," he said.

"West Virginia historically has had a horrible image - hillbillies, poverty. We're going to have kids and their parents from all over the world coming here. I think they'll have a wonderful experience and form a whole different opinion. I think when they go back home, they'll tell a whole different story.'

Outgoing State Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, was instrumental in promoting the need for the tourism study.

"From the beginning I wanted to look at tourism as an economic diversification tool," he said. "To get away from these times with the energy market going up and down, we need to diversify. There seems to be some low-hanging fruit.

"I think the study shows us how we can improve an already good thing, tourism. We've got a good base to build upon, and we've got a study to point us toward that.

"We are the backyard of the East, and we ought to capitalize on that," Browning said. "We ought to draw people here, get them to spend money here. At first, it may not create the best jobs, but when you get people in the area spending money, that stimulates other areas of the economy."

Browning agreed the Matching Advertising Partnership Program needs more money.

"We've even gone so far as to look at some kind of taxation to help," he said. "We're looking at taxing something that hasn't been taxed."

Asked for an example, he said, "We've looked at some kind of tax on rental cars. Some states look at that as a way to pay for their Courtesy Patrol. We've also looked at advertising on some Courtesy Patrol vehicles."

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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