FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — Dave Arnold stares at the giant whiteboard, searching for clues that his slow summer may finally be picking up, lifting like the New River Gorge’s morning fog.
The whiteboard hangs inside the storefront of a local photo studio. It lists every commercial whitewater rafting trip for the coming week on the New and Gauley rivers. Every Sunday night, the studio owner’s wife grabs a dry-erase marker and climbs a stool to update the data. Photographers use it to schedule shoots of rafters. The rafting companies use it as a vital economic snapshot. They anticipate its arrival like stock traders waiting on the latest corporate earnings. And so every Monday morning, like this one, they gather here, in a narrow hallway in the center of town, to study the signs.
In an instant, Arnold can see how his company, Adventures on the Gorge, and the six other rafting outfitters are measuring up.
“It’s a hair slow,” he says now. “I’m positive some of it is linked to the spill.”
The spill. In January, 10,000 gallons of a chemical used in the mining industry poured into the Elk River in Charleston, 60 miles away, a toxic mess that never reached the waters here, but one that Arnold and others believe hurt business, just the same.
“My whole life has been about selling West Virginia,” he said. “Never before have we seen an event that caused so many negative reactions.”
The spill is the latest challenge for rafting companies on the New and Gauley rivers, where world-class rapids twist between stunning, tree-covered mountains just five hours from Washington, D.C., and a bit less from Cincinnati. They already contend with long-term declines in outdoor recreation and a tourism sector battered by the recession. The number of rafters here has dropped nearly 50 percent in the past decade, to 112,737 in 2013.
That decline illustrates an ongoing battle over economic diversification in West Virginia, where the tourism industry at times collides with a powerful mining industry that for decades has provided the majority of the state’s identity and its good-paying jobs. Tourism is increasingly important to West Virginia, contributing $2.1 billion a year to the state’s GDP, just behind chemical manufacturing, according to one state study. Yet that’s still less than a third of what comes from the mining and timber industries.
Both tourism and mining use West Virginia’s natural gifts, just in very different ways. And the New River Gorge area has served both masters, transformed from an area mined for its coal seams to a place treasured for its rocks and water as they are, its turn-of-the-20th-century coal camps swallowed by nature.
It was on Jan. 9 that a liquid called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol spilled from a storage tank perched on the banks of the Elk River. MCHM, which is used to clean coal, flowed into a water treatment plant that serves 300,000 people, about 16 percent of the state’s population.
It was a disaster of unknowns. Officials knew little about the risks of MCHM. Residents were told to avoid tap water. Don’t drink it. Don’t wash or bathe in it. Not that anyone wanted to: The water smelled like licorice. Schools and restaurants were shut down. Hundreds of people were sickened. Complaints included rashes, headaches and nausea. Today, with the immediate crisis past and officials deeming the water safe, some residents still rely on bottled water.
Not a trace of MCHM flowed into the New or Gauley rivers, which sit well upstream of the spill.
“Water doesn’t flow uphill, especially in a mountainous area,” Arnold said flatly.
But tourism is built on perception. And Arnold believes West Virginia’s image as a “wild, wonderful” destination, a slogan stamped on state license plates, was damaged. Shortly after the spill, he sent an e-mail to his company’s largest mailing list to reassure customers that the New and Gauley rivers were unaffected. Online, the company deployed the slogan “H2O-AOK.”
State officials worried, too. In March, the state commissioned a poll of the spill’s effect on leisure travel. The news seemed good. Only 31 percent of people out-of-state recalled the leak when asked about recent news involving the state. The state tourism commission kicked in an extra $1.2 million for a spring marketing campaign just to be safe, said Amy Goodwin, who recently took over as state tourism commissioner. She said she has not seen signs the incident hurt tourism.
“I think we were fearful it would have a greater impact than it did,” she said.
But many in the tourism industry zoomed in on a less-discussed finding of the same poll: 7 percent of respondents said the leak had a strong negative impact on their likelihood of a state visit.
Standing before the whiteboard, Arnold recalled the figure.
“What, are you kidding me?” he said. “Seven percent is huge!”
Next to him, Adventures CEO Dave Hartvigsen nodded. He was taking notes in a black notebook. Hart, as he’s called, did the math: 7 percent of tourism’s estimated $5 billion economic impact on the state.
“That’s $350 million,” Hart said. “Somewhere in a consumer’s mind it was placed — I don’t want to go to West Virginia.”
Hart joined Adventures in October from Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a company outside Denver best known for running concessions at national parks. His hiring shows how the rafting business has evolved. Arnold, now 60, had been a kid from Ohio who didn’t want to go to med school and so helped start a rafting company in 1978. He didn’t know anything about running a business. Back then, more than 30 rafting outfitters ran the rivers, many of them operated by amateurs who just loved to be outside.
Tough times winnowed the competition. Outfitters merged or ran out of money. Today, just seven outfitters run the rivers. The business model has changed. Some of the companies that once were solely rafting outfitters now provide lodging, restaurants and a host of other outdoor activities, such as zip lines and hiking tours. In fact, don’t call them rafting outfitters. They are resorts. Adventure resorts.
The change is happening across the country, said Dave Brown, executive director of America Outdoors Association.
“Diversification is the key to success in this industry now,” he said.
Today, two companies, Adventures and Ace Adventure Resort, dominate the New River Gorge. They combined to provide nearly 80 percent of the rides down the rivers in 2013. Eleven years earlier, their share was only 28 percent.
Adventures, or AOTG, was created with the mergers of three outfitters. Today, it employs 700 people, including 200 year-round. It has almost 190 big rafts. It has expanded from eight rental cabins in 2008 to 100 cabins today, including some that offer spectacular views along the gorge’s rim 800 feet above the New River. Those go for $1,200 a night.
Rafting gave Fayetteville a second chance. A town of fewer than 3,000 residents avoided the faded-glory fate of many former coal-mining towns tucked into the hills of southern West Virginia. Fayetteville has the homey Cathedral Cafe and Gumbo’s, a Cajun eatery that bills itself as the only one in the state. It has two bicycle shops. It is home to the original Pies & Pints, a popular place for pizza. A metal street sign hints at how residents think of their town’s place in the world: It lists the distance in kilometers to outdoor hotspots in Moab, Yosemite and Africa’s Zambezi.
“This place is magic,” said Maura Kistler, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors, an eclectic store that features entire walls of metal carbineers and climbing shoes. She came here with her husband from Virginia more than 20 years ago. They couldn’t leave.
But the chemical leak worried her. A couple years ago, many town residents fought to stop a mountaintop removal mining site from opening just four miles away. She wondered if tourism and the state’s natural beauty gets the protection it deserves.
“It’s truly a dance you do to get progress in your community without pissing off everyone,” she said.
At Cathedral Cafe, owner Wendy Bayes — another transplant — said her business was good, but she’s heard other business owners, sitting at tables under the banner “Feeding your mind, body and soul,” grumbling about their numbers.
The cafe sits next to the photo studio. That’s where Arnold and Hart delved into the whiteboard’s numbers.
“Love all that color,” Hart said, pointing to how the trips were no longer bunched up on the weekends.
“This is what we want,” Arnold added. “The guides are happy. The photographers are happy. We’re happy.”
But the board didn’t display what was on Hart’s mind. Two months before the chemical leak, Adventure’s traffic had been up year-over-year.
“Sixty days after the water crisis,” he said, “we were the same amount behind.”
Teasing out a single cause for the slowdown is impossible. Maybe it was the harsh winter that caused utility bills to spike and school snow days to accumulate, leaving less money and time for vacations.
“I can’t measure it,” Jerry Cook, president of Ace Adventure Resort, said of the spill’s impact. “But I think it’s one more reason to not come here.”
It all sounds like another reaction attributed to the chemical spill: widespread itching. People in Charleston would scratch and wonder if that was a regular itch or a sign of toxic exposure.
Arnold recalled visiting Charleston a few weeks after the spill. People were still wary of the water, despite public assurances the water supply had been flushed clean. In his hotel room, Arnold stared at his shower head, silently debating whether to take a shower. Finally, he jumped in.
“The whole day I was itching,” he recalled. “Was it real? Was it my head? It was like I’d been rolling around in poison ivy.”
He felt the same way about the spill’s effect on rafting. Business was down a bit. Was the spill to blame?
“When you’re talking about the water thing in West Virginia,” Hart added, “it just adds to your quiver of arrows of negative impressions.”
Up on the whiteboard, Adventure’s final rafting trip Monday was set to depart at 1 p.m.
Twenty people would be shooting down the lower New River on three yellow rafts. They came from Illinois, Florida, Maryland and Arizona. Only a handful of them had heard about the chemical leak. They had put aside any second thoughts about making the trip.
Andy Lockwood was one of the rafting guides. He also works as a mining geologist, consulting with oil, gas and coal companies. But he works the rivers as often as he can. He’s been doing it 36 years.
With a trim beard and Hawaiian shirt, the 58-year-old Lockwood is one of those rare people straddling two different visions of the state, one represented by the “wild, wonderful” tourism line and the industrial one that still brings in the bulk of state tax revenues.
Going down the river, he sat at the back of the raft and used his long paddle to navigate past boulders in the churning waters. During lulls, he pointed to spots in the mountainsides where trees sat just a little lower, the canopy showing a slightly different shade of green. Those used to be busy coal camps, he said. A crumbling stone facade, that was a company store. He pointed to a narrow strip of beach made of pebbles and loose coal chunks. Coal once dominated the gorge. Now, it is tourism.
Lately, Lockwood has had more and more time to go rafting. Coal mining is on the decline in West Virginia. Natural gas is the new energy king. He worries he might have to move upstate to be closer to the gas fields. That’s where the action is.
“Hate to say it,” he said later, off the river, “but I might be the last generation of coal geologists.”
But he hopes to keep his job guiding rafts down the New and Gauley.