Heart of Appalachia
*At the time of her interview, Kitty Barker was a tourism development specialist for the Virginia Tourism Corporation.
How do you help small towns?
I work with small towns and helping them develop their tourism programs – for tourism, planning, strategic planning, also for marketing. We work with several partners to create entrepreneur challenges where we teach people how to do their business plans and help them get started up. So I work with a lot of small tourism businesses, helping them get started up and following them along for a couple years to help them when things get challenging.
What is the role of mayors and town managers in the work that you do?
Our mayors and town managers are very important to us because we have tourism-zone codes and ordinances that we can help them with to incentivize tourism businesses. Help them fill up those town businesses that are sitting empty and recruiting of tourism investors. We try and help them build their shopping, attractions, and restaurants and even boutique hotels. So the town managers, the planners, the IDA’s – we work together with them.
What is something you wish the mayors and town managers better understood?
That tourism is a full time job. You almost need to go ahead and plan to hire a tourism professional, or share that person with the county, or small group of towns because it’s very work intensive. It takes people daily, working on social media, working on recruitment, working on ordinances. You really need a resource person to be trained and hire somebody that’s enthusiastic, motivated, and authentic. That’s willing to go out and recruit businesses and work with businesses. So even if you have your Main Street coordinator, make sure that they’re also working on tourism and working with a tourism specialist in the region.
Is tourism going to be one of the keys in the post-coal economy?
Oh, absolutely. Already we have like the Spearhead trails being very successful. The trails are starting to open up and finish, and now I’m working with the towns in the community readiness program, and that’s to work with the towns and making sure their ordinances and codes match what VDOT wants for traffic, and also working for the towns in creating new businesses and encouraging investment. So as these trails are developed, people who are now out of jobs, may own farms, they might own houses, they might own property downtown that’s sitting empty and we can use that for restaurants or short-stays. Some of them are getting into the guide service. Providing rental ATV’s, any type of outdoor recreations not just ATV. People who love hunting and they would be a good outfitter. Or if they want to be an outfitter on the river, and just rent kayaks. Plenty of opportunities for that in this region.