Updates about Ascend W.Va. program offered in Lewisburg

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Jul. 18—LEWISBURG — An initiative geared toward coaxing remote workers to live in West Virginia is showing great promise, according to an update offered at what was billed as a "Community Conversation on Recreation Infrastructure."

The Friday morning event at the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center was attended by more than 20 people, including WVU President Gordon Gee, Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Tourism Chelsea Ruby, Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White, Greenbrier County Commission President Lowell Rose and Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Kara Dense.

Those assembled had converged on Lewisburg to continue a discussion about maximizing local outdoor recreation opportunities in support of the Ascend West Virginia program, an initiative that Gee called "transformative."

Lewisburg is among the first three communities chosen to pilot the remote worker program, which is fueled by a $25 million gift from Intuit executive and Kenova native Brad Smith and his wife, Alys.

WVU and the state Tourism Department are among the entities collaborating with Lewisburg and the other two pilot cities — Morgantown and Shepherdstown — on the Ascend program.

"We are really devoted to making sure West Virginia is a destination," Gee said, noting that the Ascend venture is the most productive collaboration he's aware of between the University and other government agencies.

Ruby said people are already moving to Morgantown as a result of the remote worker promotion, even though they are not assured a slot in the program. She said she's been told they visited to check out the possibility of taking advantage of the incentives to relocate to the state — among them $12,000 and a year's worth of free outdoor recreation — and realized Morgantown is the place they want to live, with or without incentives.

With applications for the program having opened only a couple of months ago, 7,500 people have applied for Morgantown's 50 slots, Ruby said.

The other two locations will roll out their segments of the program later.

Lewisburg is now in what Danny Twilley, assistant dean of WVU's Brad & Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, referred to at Friday's meeting as the "intentional planning" stage.

Among plans already on the drawing board to enhance the outdoor recreational appeal of the Lewisburg area — which encompasses many of the surrounding communities — are a bike park in downtown White Sulphur Springs, development of Kate's Mountain in the Greenbrier State Forest, extension of the Greenbrier River Trail into White Sulphur Springs, and Lewisburg's purchase of 45 acres of land next to the Greenbrier River which the city intends to transform into parkland.

"We're very excited about this land," Lewisburg City Manager Misty Hill said, pointing out the varied topography on the parcel that includes acreage suitable for mountain biking, as well as the obvious access for water sports.

Local entrepreneur Clay Elkins said he recently had conducted a job fair for his latest endeavors and hired 40 people.

"We have had good success in finding people to work," he commented.

Maggie Hutchison, a member of the Greenbrier River Trail Association's board, asked what is being done to address Greenbrier County's ever-present broadband failures.

Gee said securing reliable internet service is the state's No. 1 priority.

Commissioner Rose pointed out that the County Commission had hired a consulting group to help the county come up with a way to bring broadband to people and businesses. He said he expects at least one new company to bring upgrades to the county within a year.

Bringing the hour-long meeting to a close, Twilley said, "The world is really ours to grab."

In order to devise a "high-level concept plan," he invited all of those in attendance to continue to bring potential projects to the table, cautioning, "It's not an overnight thing. But that's a really great next step."

Twilley said he also intends to bring in some outside experts to work on the plan and emphasized that WVU and the Tourism Department would partner with Lewisburg to identify opportunities for new recreation infrastructure and secure funding for those projects.

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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