The New River Gorge Bridge. Photo by Erica Peterson.

There’s a lot at stake in this year’s elections. But it shouldn’t be about campaign ad wars and horse-race coverage.  

So, Mountain State Spotlight reporters fanned out to four corners of the state, and asked you what’s on your mind at this crucial moment in our history. 

This story is part of what we heard. Click here to read more.

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — In many ways, Fayetteville feels different from its neighbors in southern West Virginia.

The town, known for its gargantuan New River Gorge Bridge, world-renowned rock climbing and celebrated local eats, has a youthful energy often missing in a part of the state dealing with stifled coal mines, an opioid crisis and a dwindling population.

“The community is so supportive here,” Lindsay Crance, 28, said, sitting at a picnic table in downtown Fayetteville with an iced chai from Cathedral Cafe. 

It was October, a few weeks from the election, and fall had drenched the town in golden hues. 

Crance, a Virginia native, moved to Fayetteville in 2014 for a job and now works at a marketing company based in Pineville.

“We just had three new businesses open this week. There’s a lot of possibilities here,” she said.

A “Mask Up” sign hangs over Court St. leading into downtown Fayetteville. Photo by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

The charming Fayetteville in many ways feels like a place you’d go to escape the 2020 political frenzy, but campaign signs, including a giant one saying, “[Republican Gov.] Jim [Justice] won’t give up on coal,” line the wooded roads that lead into downtown. Democrat gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango has visited local shops several times during his campaign, and he even shot an ad in the area that showed him rock climbing. 

Young adults in the small town feel like, despite the town’s impressive economic boom amid COVID-19, Fayetteville is typically out-of-mind during elections. Even further from campaign rhetoric are the area’s specific infrastructure needs to grow the industry — everything from parking to affordable housing for local residents. 

Residents say the town could use more support from state leaders in order to capitalize on its tourism and recreation success — especially if that industry is the future of the state.

“I think sometimes politicians in West Virginia think Charleston is the only city in the state,” Crance said. “They forget about the southern part of the state.”

Growing pains as Fayetteville becomes a pandemic getaway

Fayetteville was already climbing in popularity prior to the pandemic — National Geographic has more than once profiled the adventure town — and the need for outdoor, socially-distanced activities has kept the area bustling on the weekends since spring. 

Staff with the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau reported a dramatic increase in tourists during COVID-19, with visits up 50% from this time last year just in their office. 

Fayetteville residents said the town was overflowing on Bridge Day Weekend in October, despite the fact COVID-19 concerns cancelled the famous annual single-day festival where BASE jumpers fly 876 feet into the gorge below.

Taylor Napier (left), Lindsay Crance, Johnny King and Walker Mallory stand in downtown Fayetteville in October. Only Napier is originally from West Virginia. Photo by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

But the recreation boom can be problematic especially for residents, and one of the biggest concerns in the community is building an infrastructure that adequately supports and sustains tourism and recreation growth…as well as providing essential amenities for locals.

Whitewater rafting, rock climbing and highly-praised hiking trails are already there; but, what about enough parking, lodging and restaurants?

“My life and my careers have been in some way bringing people to Fayetteville,” resident Mark Williams said. Now, growing the area’s tourism is “complicated.”

Williams, 42, moved to Fayetteville around 20 years ago for rock climbing, and ended up creating the area’s rock climbing guide. Three years ago, he launched a business, Bridge Bound Campers, converting vans into mini-RVs, outfitted with custom cabinets, solar power, bike racks and showers for around $30,000 a vehicle. 

Williams said that as more people have flocked to the small town for recreation, it’s made him realize the area isn’t set up to hold thousands of people.

“It’s made me think how hard we want to bring people here. We need to have infrastructure in place before,” Williams said. “We need to have parking, and we need to pay the park service.”

The Fayette County Courthouse in October. Photo by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

Taylor Napier, 28, moved to Fayetteville in March for a job with a marketing company.

“I think there’s focus on what money can be earned from tourism and not so much how we can protect the land,” she said. “There are certain things that really frustrate me, like when I go to a hiking spot and there’s trash everywhere because there are no trash bins.”

Neither Justice, who didn’t respond to questions for this story, nor Salango list tourism or recreation as a main issue on their campaign websites, though both have noted its importance to the state’s economy.

Over the last four years, Justice has touted the state’s tourism industry, and encouraged people to visit state parks during the pandemic by offering a discount code for lodging. Tourism spending has increased during his time in office.

In the last month, he announced millions of dollars in improvements at state parks, including a new gift shop at Kanawha State Forest, and he said 50,000 trout will be stocked at 39 lakes and streams across West Virginia.

Salango has experience growing tourism in Kanawha County, and as a Kanawha County Commissioner, he was the driving force behind the Shawnee Sports Complex. The endeavor has brought millions of dollars to the Kanawha area through youth soccer tournaments and other events.

As a gubernatorial candidate, he created a Regional Economic Development plan that would seek to expand the ATV opportunities and recreational tourism in the southern part of the state.

“The return on investment on tourism is incredible,” Salango said. “It is low-hanging fruit. It’s typically easy to develop and easy to market, and the return is immediate.”

 “We’ve got to make sure Fayetteville we’re doing all we can for whitewater and climbing,” he added.

What to fix: Housing shortage spurred by Airbnbs 

In Fayetteville, young adults would like to see a governor not just invest in getting people to the area but also focus on attracting people to move there permanently.

“We need to attract workers who can work from home,” Walker Mallory, 29, said. He moved to Fayetteville in March. “But we need housing.”

“Housing is a key issue. It’s very difficult to find here,” Crance said. 

Taylor Napier and Walker Mallory moved to Fayetteville in March. Photo by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

Residents said the town is experiencing a glaring affordable housing shortage, which many attributed to people out-of-state buying up homes in the area then renting them out as short-term rentals through sites like Airbnb. 

The town currently does not have an ordinance that bans or restricts short-term rentals. Many larger U.S. cities have banned Airbnbs or enforced strict regulations over concerns about the area’s affordable housing stock, rent hikes in available apartments and lost revenue for hotels. 

Fayetteville does tax Airbnbs under the county’s hotel/motel tax.

But both residents and tourism employees say the Airbnb boom has made housing unaffordable or nonexistent, meaning first-time home buyers are being priced out of the town despite the general low cost of living in West Virginia.

“There was only one option when I moved here [in March]. I somehow lucked out. I have tons of friends who are looking for rentals right now, and there’s just none,” Napier said.

There’s also the state’s well-known internet issues, and the gaps in broadband service act as a barrier to people making Fayetteville home.

“With COVID, people want to live in Fayetteville. We’ve seen a huge growth in people living here because they can work online,” Williams explained. He said his friends who are doing online work have struggled to find homes to buy in the rural area with adequate internet access.

Moving West Virginia’s tourism and recreation industry forward is not without hurdles and reality checks, like, if and how tourism can replace lost high-paying coal mining jobs? And, how does state leadership balance its energy plans with land conservation?

As West Virginia looks to reverse its declining population, towns like Fayetteville could be key in reversing the trend.

But, it won’t be without addressing other issues outside of tourism, community members said.

“I talk to a lot of friends who are climbers who want to move here, and there are two things that come up: our education and health care,” Williams said. 

“There needs to be more conversation about how we get people who work here to stay.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the local taxes on short-term rentals. Fayette County’s 6% hotel/motel tax applies to short-term rentals, as well as hotels and motels.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a Report for America Corps member who covers poverty. A native of Rand in Kanawha County, she started her career in her home state then served as editor of The Contributor in...