Partners Look to Offset Coal Job Losses with $2M Grant

Southwest Virginia Community College, Virginia Tourism Corporation along with other partners are working to revive the local economy through tourism development and outdoor recreation education programs.

Southwest Virginia Community College, Virginia Tourism Corporation along with other partners are working to revive the local economy through tourism development and outdoor recreation education programs. The Southwest Virginia region has experienced a major economic downturn due to a reduction in coal and other key employment sectors. In the past ten years, there have been 1,100 mining job losses with more than 43 different occupations affected by the downturn. Because of these factors, the region is diversifying its economic efforts to now include a focus on maximizing its natural resources and scenic beauty by developing outdoor recreation, tourism and other such economic efforts.

The Virginia Community College System received a $2 million POWER grant to help train dislocated coal workers in the Southwest region. This funding allows displaced workers to enroll in special programs, such as, Adventure Tourism Cohort or an Outdoor Recreation Cohort, to establish small businesses in the Adventure Tourism Industry in the Southwest Virginia region. Small businesses developed from these programs go beyond outdoor recreation such as, hiking, biking, kayaking, or climbing trips, to include other amenities such as bed and breakfasts, cabin rentals, and other assets that may of interest to visitors of Southwest Virginia.

These outdoor recreation programs prepare displaced workers in key outdoor recreation industry skills including trail design, outfitter services, adventure camping, and other key tourism and recreation business planning and development. For example, Spearhead Trails, a major regional trail system attracting thousands of visitors annually, is looking toward graduates as it grows and hires new staff. Chris Sturgill, Spearhead Trails – Field Operations Manager, is serving as an instructor in the program. “I was in the coal industry. We’ve already hired some displaced coal workers, and as we grow we hope to hire more for some key trail development and maintenance positions for Spearhead Trails. As a Southwest Virginia native, it’s exciting to see our shift toward an industry focusing on outdoor recreation and our beautiful mountains. It’s a natural fit when these are things coal miners did for their enjoyment on weekends anyway (ATV riding, hiking, wildlife viewing, etc.).”

These programs come at a perfect time as tourism is a growing industry in Southwest Virginia. Since 2004, Southwest Virginia has experienced a 53% growth in expenditures, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation. “We are proud of the work the Virginia Tourism Corporation Development Team has been doing in the Southwest Virginia region over the past ten years, all of which have been made possible with local state and federal entities,” said Rita McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corporation. “There’s no better example than Spearhead Trails, which we helped facilitate from concept. Outdoor recreation and tourism are huge industries for Virginia and the region. Our partnership with the Virginia Community College System, and specifically Southwest Virginia Community College, is a natural next and important step to grow and develop what are becoming important industries for the region.”

Southwest Virginia Community College is the first in the Virginia Community College System to spearhead such a program focused on combining trail design and outdoor recreation. “We are excited about the partnerships and the opportunities it will provide for our students. The real-world experience the students receive and the knowledge gained from current practitioners is a priceless experience and opportunity for them,” said James Dye, Dean of Business, Engineering, & Industrial Technology at Southwest Virginia Community College.

Displaced coal miners and other interested citizens in the programs, please visit or contact Southwest Virginia Community College at 276-964-7277 or

For more information on Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Development efforts/or services in the region, visit

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