Proud of its beautiful niche in the world, the city of Lewisburg, along with Greenbrier Valley tourism promoters, have been shouting its praises for many years. The town was even deemed a “coolest small town in America.”
Lewisburg is now placing a welcome mat out in an entirely new way, and extending that invitation to come enjoy every nook and cranny of its surrounding mountains, each flow of area waterway, meandering twists of various trails, and the clearest views of blue or starry skies, making up a complete outdoor package found only in the Greenbrier Valley. But the catch is, you have to work for it. Remotely that is.
This welcome mat comes through Ascend WV, an incentive designed to encourage remote workers to move to Lewisburg.
First introduced on April 12, the Ascend WV program will provide $12,000 cash and a year’s worth of free outdoor recreation to those who move into one of the state’s first three host cities — Lewisburg, Morgantown or Shepherdstown.
The invitation proved to be a hit right off the bat. By April 14, Gov. Jim Justice announced that within 36 hours, 2,000 people from 38 states had filled out an application to move to West Virginia following the program’s initial launch.
On Friday, July 16, stakeholders of the Ascent WV program met at the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss the next steps necessary to bring the program to fruition.
Gordon Gee, WVU president; Danny Twilley, head of Ascend WV; Chelsea Ruby, secretary for the WVU remote worker program; Rich Edwards, infrastructure coordinator for Ascend WV’s Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC); Beverly White, Lewisburg’s mayor and other city officials; Lowell Rose, Greenbrier County commissioner; Tammy Tincher, GC commissioner (via Zoom); Kara Dense, CVB executive director; Ruthana Beezley, executive director of the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation; Jesse Anderson, superintendent at Greenbrier State Forest; Brett McMillion, deputy chief at West Virginia State Parks; and many local business owners, attended the meeting to share their ideas and experiences.
“It’s wonderful to see you all again,” said Twilley. “Just the warm welcome, it just continues. Love it. We are excited to be here today with President Gee and Secretary Ruby… When we started thinking about coming down to visit, the energy that we felt in this room from the same group that last time, I tell you. I’ve been doing these meetings around these types of topics for some time, you are just so positive, cooperative, thoughtful, all moving in the same direction, and we are getting it moving.”
Dense, having grown up in Greenbrier County, and through 14 years in her role with the CVB, she is in the position to notice that “the energy and synergy is the best it’s been” since she can remember. “I believe this program is an integral part of that. Thank you for choosing Lewisburg. When people choose Lewisburg, they choose all of the Greenbrier Valley, because we have so much to offer.”
Gee said the Ascend WV project is not only wonderful but transformative.
He noted that the state has exported “coal, oil, gas and talent. And that is a tragedy for us because we have been losing population. And one of the things that I think we all know is that West Virginians love West Virginia, and born-again West Virginians love West Virginia, and they want to live here and particularly the young people want to live here. We just need to provide the opportunity and the reason for them to move here. What we know about the millennials and the Z generation [is] the fact that their number one priority is being able to have a good living, and being able to have a good family setting, and being able to have a comfort zone in which they can reside … and we are the ideal spot. We are really devoted to making certain that West Virginia becomes a destination. Tourism is important not only for people living here but also a place in which we build a whole new structure. [The state] can really move from coal to cool, and in so doing, we are becoming a destination place for people who want to have a great living and want to have a great quality of life.”
Ruby told of a trend across the country to create various departments to address outdoor recreation initiatives and a huge push to create one in the Mountain State. But she suggested that “instead of creating another agency in state government, let us try to work with our partners at WVU and create a different model, a different way to do this. So I’m thrilled that that is what we are working on doing. We are now getting calls from other states asking us how we are doing this. Danny and I did a call last week with Colorado, and after the call, we just sort of laughed and said, ‘wait did they just call us?’ And it felt very real.”
Twilley spoke briefly about the WVU’s team visit to Lewisburg about a month and a half ago to “plant the seeds” and returned on Friday after giving the seeds time to “germinate.”
Upon that return, Ruby called the local effort the, “Best collaborative example that I’ve ever been a part of and that maybe has ever existed.”
Elkins told meeting attendees about writing a $15,000 grant proposal for a WSS bike park.
“In White Sulphur, we are a West Virginia HubCAP team,” said Elkins. “So there are a lot of people in this room who are a part of that team. Kara Dense is on there, and we work together to build cohesion around, really, the rebranding of White Sulphur Springs as an outdoor recreation destination.”
Dense further explained the WSS team, “It’s a community achievement program through the West Virginia Hub, which is about community development, and I think Richwood has been a HubCAP community, I think Marlinton is one right now, so we meet as a group… We’ve been together for about a year and we meet monthly and this is the [bike park] project that we’ve come up with.”
Lewisburg’s City Manager Misty Hill expressed excitement about the purchase of riverfront property and requested ideas on its use. With its river access and level ground, “It’s perfect for mountain biking and many, many [things].”
Hill also discussed an American Cares Act reimbursement used for the placement of a synthetic baseball field at Hollowell Park just in time to hold the Little League State Tournament that started Friday evening.
“We made the deadline by the hair on our chinny-chin-chin,” Hill said. “We are so excited to hold the state Little League Tournament like that. I think COVID has impacted everyone, everyone sitting in this room, but our children have been impacted the most. And seeing that they are out there and riding bikes, and out playing sports… I’m super excited for them.”
Other thoughts were discussed before the topic of the area’s problematic high-speed internet access was raised by Maggie Hutchinson, president of the Greenbrier Trail Association.
“What are we going to do about broadband?” asked Hutchinson. “That’s a serious issue.”
Gee agreed, “Broadband is the number one priority in the state… Once we solve that problem, Katy bar the door.”
Rose said if current plans are successful, Greenbrier County will have one of the first broadband lines run throughout the county within a year.
“We are working on it very hard to get fiber into the county, and to have redundancies where we can attract businesses, especially like to the airport, kind of like a hub,” Rose said. “We are, the county is, working on that pretty hard.”
Members of the Greenbrier Valley are doing the hard work in anticipation that Ascend WV recipients will be ready to work in the Greenbrier Valley. Through this local effort, surrounding communities are also expected to benefit.
The idea for Ascend WV was born in early 2020, at the Inaugural Marshall University CEO Panel, just weeks before the world would face a major pandemic. Inspired by the discussion between Brad D. Smith and the CEOs of Adobe and Paypal, the seed for Ascend WV was planted. With a generous gift, Brad and Alys Smith created WVU’s OEDC, and in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Tourism, the vision came to life. The Ascend WV program officially launched in April of 2021 as Ascend Morgantown opened for applicants. More information can be requested at email@example.com.
Ascend WV is made possible by a generous $25 million gift from Brad and Alys Smith, founding the West Virginia University Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative.