This afternoon, my wife and I took a drive over to Wolfe County to visit with the in-laws for a while. It was a PERFECT day for a drive, and we had a good time catching up and sharing stories.
The area where they live is called Big Andy Ridge. Like lots of places around here, it is dotted with farms and random houses, and it is rare that you make the drive in or out of there without meeting some friendly folks who throw up their hand to wave. It is also fairly common that you will meet a car from New York…or California…or South Dakota…or some other random state. When I go to Wolfe County, the only three things I can be reasonably sure will happen are that I will drink an Ale-8, eat a large double cheeseburger from the Dixie Freeze, and see a car from somewhere that is far, far away from Eastern Kentucky.
They are fairly easy to spot…roof mounted ski racks and front mounted license plates are usually a dead giveaway. So what are all of these folks doing out some random ridge in Wolfe County? Well, they are doing the same thing that more and more people are driving from more and more places to that area of the state to do. Climb rocks.
The Red River Gorge area has built a reputation for some of the finest climbing in this country, and there are other little areas surrounding the Gorge area that are awfully popular, too. Big Andy is home to Muir Valley. It is a recreational area that is over 400 acres in size and is fully supported by donations and volunteers who just enjoy going there to climb, hike, or just hang out. The popularity is apparent by the number of out-of-state cars you meet as you wind around the curvy little road that runs along Big Andy Ridge.
People around here seem to be divided about this influx of “outsiders”. On the one hand, the people coming here do have money to spend. The question is, outside of gas stations and grocery stores, do we currently have the types of businesses where those people would want to spend their money? This crowd isn’t exactly interested in the Pigeon Forge type experience, although that is a model that has been mentioned in some of the SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) sessions lately as one that could possibly work in our area.
Financial benefits aside, there still are, and likely will always be, folks in these parts that would rather that group not come around here at all. There’s a range of reasons that drive those feelings, but always at its core is this basic distrust of those who aren’t FROM here…of people who just aren’t “one of us”.
I don’t have an easy answer about how we can all start to come to terms with those feelings, but it is evident to me that the rock climbing crowd, in particular, is here to stay. What that means is that we have a KNOWN type of consumer coming in large numbers to this general area in increasing amounts, year after year. It seems to me that rather than reject that type of readily available market data, folks might want to work a little harder on figuring out just exactly how they can use that information to their advantage.
Certainly we are at a disadvantage, since not many of us grew up living a rock climbing or hiking-focused lifestyle, and for the most part, people from around here don’t go on vacations to take part in those types of activities. When we take a vacation, we head to the beach…we go fishing…we visit Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
As such, it is harder for us to conceive of businesses that would be appealing to the folks who DO like to take vacations focused on outdoor activities like climbing or hiking or canoeing. Often, the businesses we see locals open are the types of businesses that WE like seeing when WE go on vacation…fudge shops…go-cart tracks…etcetera…the problem is, WE aren’t vacationing HERE.
It is a complex problem that is bigger than I can fit into this article, but I think a stronger focus on entrepreneurship and business education could go a long way towards helping local people learn how to open, own, and operate businesses that can be appealing to the crowd that is coming to this area to spend their vacation and leisure time.
Finding ways to embrace this visiting demographic certainly seems like it would prove more beneficial than fearing and rejecting it. Who knows…some of us may even learn to climb a few rocks along the way ourselves.