ST. PAUL, Va. — All-terrain vehicles are parked outside of stores and restaurants.
Patrons with muddy boots and helmets can be seen eating and shopping throughout town.
Several rental apartments have opened up, providing the first overnight lodging in St. Paul in decades.
The new face of tourism in St. Paul came roaring in a year ago on four muddy wheels.
“The traffic coming in and out of St. Paul — even with bad weather — has not decreased,” said Andrea Hicks, Spearhead Trails’ marketing administrator. “It’s a 12-month-a-year thing ... from what I’ve seen, we’ve had no slow-down.”
Spearhead Trails, part of the Southwest Virginia Regional Recreation Authority, opened its first trail a year ago, starting in St. Paul. That trail system, the Mountain View Trail, now has about 90 miles of ATV-friendly trail and can accommodate each level of rider, Hicks said.
“We are working on trying to get a trail to Coeburn to connect town to town,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process.”
And about 3,500 ATV permits — including both day-use and annual permits — have been sold by Spearhead Trails and local vendors, she said. Permits cost $15 for a day or $50 for a year.
“We’ve had somebody from almost every state since we opened,” Hicks said, adding that the trails are busy every day of the week, but especially on weekends. “We’ve under-predicted what we thought was going to be the trend — it’s not uncommon to see a Monday packed.”
The trails are marked by color for each difficulty level, and are made of different types of terrain, including gravel, rock and some water features.
Most of the trail is shrouded in leafy canopy in the woods, and there are overlooks where riders can gaze at the land surrounding the trails, which weave around private property in Russell County. The trails themselves are on private property, built on old mining roads or hiking paths.
“Riders love the fact that it’s a natural trail,” she said. “The majority of folks we see are families, but we do have a lot of extreme guys that come out.”
To ride, people need a permit and must follow the rules, including wearing a safety helmet. Permits are available on the Spearhead Trails website, as well as at local vendors in town.
A hired security team rides the trails to help ATVers and enforce the rules, Hicks said.
“These are good trails,” said Rita Housewright, of Church Hill, Tennessee, who was at the trail system last week to ride with her husband, Billy.
The couple has ridden several times since the trail system opened.
“We average 20 to 25 miles of riding” each time, Billy Housewright said, as the pair prepped to go out again one day this month. “There’s so much to see, wildlife and everything.”
His wife said she likes the trails because she can go at her own pace, and she enjoys being out in the woods.
“We could be out here all day or we could be here an hour,” she said. “It’s a good trail, and I like that you have to have a helmet ... it’s safe. You see the rangers [security team], they’re always out here. ... I think it [the trail system] could be as big as the Hatfield-McCoy Trails [a large trail system in West Virginia] if they let it.”
Robert Wright, and his grandson, Jacob Caudill, 13, both from Kentucky, recently rode the trails on their dirt bikes. It was the first time either had been on the trail system and they came back to the parking lot with mud up their legs and dirt coming off their tires.
“We rode almost as far up the system as you could go,” Wright said, pointing on the trail map where he and his grandson had been.
The two often ride around the house or on an old strip mine nearby, he said.
“This was more fun than home,” Jacob said. “The trail is maintained. We saw a lot of wildlife.”
He said he’s been trail-riding since he was 4 years old, and appreciates a new challenge. The pair rode on all three levels of difficulty, but had not yet tested the single-track trail built for dirt bikes.
“We’re definitely going to come back,” Wright said. “We’ll have to pick a weekend when we’re more apt to be with other folks.”
In the past year, there has been $1 million in private money invested in St. Paul as a result of the trail system, which gets funding from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and other agencies, according to a report from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. The authority has also put up some money for the trail system.
The trails have employed about a dozen people and about seven businesses have opened thanks to the trails, officials said.
“Nobody’s ever seen anything like it,” said Chuck Riedhammer, executive director of the Recreation Authority. “The success has been overwhelming and the town of St. Paul is doing very well.”
Some of that has been at Greg Bailey’s business, a hardware store in the town of about 1,000 residents. He has been stocking more and more ATV-related items.
Bailey sells trail permits, upwards of 50-60 in any given weekend, he said. He has a photo on his cell phone of a stack of ATVs parked outside his store. You can drive an ATV on the street in St. Paul, and he said the photo on his phone represents a typical weekend day.
“We found out in 2010 that this system was coming to Southwest Virginia and convinced the [Town] Council to prepare for it,” Bailey said of the ordinance that treats ATVs like cars.
At his store, he’s added ATV-rider grab-and-go items — granola bars and energy drinks instead of the usual candy and soda.
“Two or three weeks ago, we added an ice machine, because these guys wanted to come in and get ice,” he said. “We sell safety glasses, and have applied to get ATV sales. We’ve shifted some of our business toward ATV.”
And part of that business is in rentals. Bailey owns some short-term lease apartments that he’s slowly converting into overnight accommodations for ATV riders under the name St. Paul Suites & Cottages. He has six apartment units and two houses.
“I had no idea overnight would happen,” Bailey said of his initial reaction to the ATV trails. “When the trails opened up, people asked where to stay.”
He said he stays booked most weekends.
Nearby, Ronald David has opened another overnight accommodation in an old bank building downtown. Copperhead Road Rental features renovated rooms — one is in the old office of former Russell County state Senator M.M. Long.
The downstairs area of the building is where $5 and $10 bills were printed from 1907 to 1935, David said. The building was constructed in the early 1900s, David said, and when he bought it and started renovating, he heard about the trail system.
“Hopefully, we’re on the ground floor” of development around the tourism, he said.
He’s currently working on opening more suites, each of which will have a theme — steam engines, western horses, a 50s diner. There will be five total places to stay, including another property nearby, he said.
“It’s great for the town,” David said of the trails. “I think anything that can help the area [is good.] The coal business is nonexistent. ... I hope the trail does really well. I’d like to see a lot of things come to town to boost the economy.”
What’s to come?
Riedhammer wants to take the model of success in St. Paul and extend it to other towns in the region — including Haysi, Grundy and Pennington Gap.
“The model has proven that ATV trails are a good method of economic development,” he said.
The VCEDA report states that loans have been given to the Recreation Authority to help build ATV, or off-highway vehicle, OHV, trails in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties. In total, more than $537,000 has been set aside to develop trails in those three counties.
The immediate next step is to extend the trail to nearby Coeburn, which recently adopted an ordinance to permit ATVs on its roadways.
But St. Paul seems to have been the right town to start.
“I think what resonates with our riders is this is a great town because it’s friendly,” Bailey said. “It’s a big deal for us, it really is.”
He said he could see St. Paul as the Damascus of ATVs. Damascus has gained popularity in the last few years because of its easy access to biking trails like the Virginia Creeper Trail, and the services that shuttle folks up and down the mountain for an easy ride.
“I think this will be a success,” he said. “But we have to be competitive and find our niche.”
Hicks said St. Paul is a different place than it was a year or more ago.
“I’m in awe of the hope,” she said. “Just the mentality of hope. I’m anxious to see if it’s not just St. Paul but if it comes [to other towns]. The mentality here is good, it’s just good.”
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