Students, Faculty Helping Elkhorn City Become Certified "Trail Town"

photo of students near Elkhorn City

Elkhorn City is not a college town, but you might not know it these days.

Dozens of Eastern Kentucky University students, assisted by a few faculty members, are making frequent visits, helping the Pike County community (pop. 982) maximize its economic development and tourism potential and obtain “Trail Town” designation.

A gateway community to Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles the Kentucky/Virginia border, Elkhorn City sits at the intersection of two major cross country trails: the Great Eastern Trail, a hiking trail that runs north-south from southern Alabama to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, and the Trans-America Bike Trail, an east-west route running from the Virginia coast to the Oregon coast. Also, the Russell Fork River, a potential blue-line water trail, winds through Elkhorn City, a world-renowned whitewater destination since the late 1980s.

Little wonder Elkhorn City is one of 32 communities identified by the Kentucky Office of Adventure Tourism as a potential “trail town.” As Dr. Stephanie McSpirit, sociology professor and project director, explained, the designation “will help Elkhorn City to promote and market its many natural assets and amenities and will help bring much needed tourist dollars into a community that is experiencing a major decline in its traditional coal mining economy.”

In many ways, McSpirit noted, Elkhorn City is ahead of the “transition curve.” For the past decade, the Elkhorn City Heritage Council has been developing an alternative economic development plan that focuses on promoting the town’s natural assets and has been writing grants, building partnerships and collecting data to promote its vision of a thriving economy based on adventure tourism. It applied in June 2012 to go through the Kentucky Trail Town Development and Certification Program.

Over the past year, Elkhorn City has benefited from another asset: a cross-disciplinary EKU team comprised of students and faculty from the Department of Recreation and Park Administration and the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work. Drs. Michael Bradley and Ryan Sharp, both from the Department of Recreation and Park Administration, are co-directors of the project.

“We are very excited (because) students can add an age-group perspective we target in adventure marketing,” said Elaine Wilson, executive director of the Commonwealth’s Office of Adventure Tourism. “They can share what services, products, signage, trail features and other are vital to the local process.”

As one of the students, senior sociology major Mark Beaven, of Lebanon, explained: “This is the best opportunity Elkhorn City has to rebuild and survive in a post-coal economy. Elkhorn City is in a unique position to capitalize on all the natural resources that are already a draw for many interested in outdoor and adventure tourism.”

 The EKU-Elkhorn City Heritage Council partnership has entailed a series of site visits, interviews with leaders and other local residents, teleconference calls and grant-writing projects. Three Recreation and Park Administration classes are working on site, helping the Council develop a commercial recreation plan for the city as well as appropriate signage for trail access points and environmental education. One graduate-level class is conducting an in-depth user assessment that measures tourists’ expenditures and satisfaction.

McSpirit termed the trail town certification process as an “asset building” development strategy, focused on a community’s opportunities rather than its needs or challenges.

“Through our formal interviews, we hope to map those strengths and opportunities that various residents have identified as significant in developing the city’s tourist economy,” McSpirit said, “and, through this ‘asset mapping’ strategy, we plan to share our findings with the Elkhorn City Heritage Council, the trail town taskforce, City Council and other community members in building positive dialogue and consensus around the certification process.”

McSpirit and others also are working to organize an “alternative spring break” for Spring 2014 to “get students into Elkhorn City helping with trail maintenance and other town projects. We are hoping to partner with students and faculty from the University of Kentucky in coordinating this alternative spring break.”

 The benefits of the EKU team’s efforts may eventually extend well beyond Elkhorn City. McSpirit and co-directors Bradley and Sharp plan to use the field experiences and data collected there to develop a potential “trail town template” for assisting other communities in their own trail town application process. “We plan to develop a methodology and form of outreach that includes university and student engagement in the trail town certification-community process. This form of university-community engagement is not only useful in developing community capacity but is also useful in developing student capacity, developing university student skills in community assessment and community development.”

Bradley said his two Recreation and Park Administration classes involved with the project this fall “were a good fit with the needs of the Elkhorn City community. The student learning outcomes pair well with these service-learning projects.

“Beyond the exposure to the Appalachian culture and the current status of recreation, the economy and a good general experience,” Bradley added, “my students specifically used this opportunity to develop skills related to community master planning, planning interpretive services, developing business plans, and developing their personal communication and networking capabilities.”

The Elkhorn City project is funded by a small University grant (Robert Welch Foundation) as well as financial contributions from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work. For more information on how to become involved in the Elkhorn City Project for the spring 2014 semester, contact McSpirit at Stephanie.McSpirit@eku.edu, Bradley at Michael.Bradley@eku.edu, or Sharp at Ryan.Sharp@eku.edu.

Published on October 28, 2013