Graduate students help communities keep Southwest Virginia’s rail trails vibrant

For Sarah Lyon-Hill of Toledo, Ohio, a graduate student studying urban and regional planning, the classroom and the real world came together on a Southwest Virginia walking trail.

Lyon-Hill was one of nine graduate students in the Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech led by John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development. With the goal of linking university and community to address an economic development issue, Provo and his students took as their clients the Virginia Creeper Trail Club and the New River Trail State Park in Southwest Virginia.


Kathryn Shackelford, at left, interacts with John Provo and Sarah Lyon-Hill in the Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech. Kathryn Shackelford, at left, interacts with John Provo and Sarah Lyon-Hill in the Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech.

“My goal for the students was to get them to think beyond what was right in front of them,” Provo said. “I wanted them to challenge the clients’ thinking, as well as their own. It’s a hugely important educational step for students, and I wanted to give them the tools for interacting with people in a new way.”

Determining the economic impact of trails on local communities — Damascus along the Virginia Creeper Trail and Galax along the New River Trail — was an unusual assignment for Lyon-Hill and her fellow College of Architecture and Urban Studies graduate students.

“We had no idea how to conduct an economic impact study on a trail,” Lyon-Hill said. “However, we learned quickly that we were no longer in a classroom setting. We were given a problem, and we had to figure out how to solve it.”

The team spent the first month researching the literature on community and asset-based development.


Sarah Lyon-Hill poses at the at the Virginia Creeper Trail trailhead in Abingdon, Va. Sarah Lyon-Hill poses at the at the Virginia Creeper Trail trailhead in Abingdon, Va.

“We really had to search for the information instead of being handed it,” Lyon-Hill said. “The process required critical thinking. We had to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the next step?’ and not expect someone to tell us what that step was.”

After doing basic research, students interviewed experts to frame their analysis and to begin to evaluate what people thought about the trails and the communities in which they are located. During the third month of their study, the students collected data through surveys of trail users, as well as local business and other stakeholders.

“Rather than studying ways to bring new sources of jobs to these communities, we wanted to look at ways of using existing resources,” Lyon-Hill said. “So we looked at the opportunities for economic development provided by the Virginia Creeper Trail and New River Trail State Park.”

As a final step, they analyzed their findings and developed recommendations they could offer to local officials and other stakeholders for making the best use of the trails for economic development.

“The key to this project was discovering how the trails can help support the economies of nearby communities,” Lyon-Hill said. “We had to be innovative and develop a plan and proposal to help integrate the trails into the communities in ways that had not been done before.”


A map of the trails A map shows the Virginia Creeper, at left, and Damascus, Va., as well as the New River Trail State Park and Galax, Va.

After presenting their findings and recommendations to their clients in December 2011, Lyon-Hill and her fellow students said they felt confident about the value of their work. “We were a bit nervous about the clients’ responses, but we were able to give input and perspective that was cohesive,” Lyon-hill said.

“We loved working with this class,” said Link Elmore of the Virginia Creeper Trail Club. “These are highly motivated grad students. They did a great job.”

Provo said he, too, is pleased with his students’ work. “I gave them a road map and an opportunity to do something themselves,” he said. “The whole point of the Economic Development Studio is to get students to own it and apply what they know. It’s not just reporting, but also analyzing and giving a recommendation to become a part of a larger initiative.”

  • Kelcey Thurman of Lynchburg, Va., who graduated in May 2012 with a degree in communications, contributed to this report.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Andrea Brunais at 540-231-4691.

About the effort

    People walk on the Virginia Creeper Trail

Students in the Economic Development Studio @ Virginia Tech, a collaborative effort of the Urban Affairs and Planning program and the Office of Economic Development, conduct research to help communities throughout the commonwealth make informed decisions about economic development strategy.

  • Watch a video about the trails project.

Meet the team

Students who conducted the Economic Development Studio trails research are Sarah Lyon-Hill of Toledo, Ohio; Stephen Cox of Tallahassee, Fla.; Jonathan Hedrick of Pulaski, Va.; Chelsea Jeffries of Windsor, Mass.; Swetha Kumar of Cary, N.C.; William Powell of Whitetop, Va.; Kathryn Shackelford of Newburgh, Ind.; Sheila Westfall of Grafton, W.Va.; and Melissa Zilke of Winchester, Va.

Their overall Economic Development Studio report recommendations are the following:

  • The New River Trail State Park should form a Friends of the Park group to increase collaboration between the park and trail communities and should partner with Galax, Va., to identify the best means of redeveloping the property along the trail.
  • The Virginia Creeper Trail Club should become a stakeholder in the new public library and tourism center in Damascus, Va., and should help promote diverse tourist activities, including tourism maps, heritage- and artisan-centered tourist activities, and trail events.
  • Both trail groups should serve as intermediaries between communities along the trails to promote regional efforts for economic development and should promote youth involvement in trails, such as environmental education activities.

Explore the trails

The Virginia Creeper Trail and the New River Trail State Park are former railway beds that have been converted into walking paths. They are used primarily for hiking, biking, and, sometimes, horseback riding.

The Virginia Creeper is 34 miles long, running from Abington, Va., south through Damascus, Va., to the North Carolina border.

The New River Trail State Park runs for 57 miles, much of it along the New River, from Galax, Va., northward through Carroll, Grayson, Pulaski, and Wythe counties. 

“Bicycle tourists, a growing, affluent segment of the tourist market, contribute significantly to local businesses that are well-connected to trails. Along the Virginia Creeper Trail in southwest Virginia, visitors spend $1.59 million annually providing an estimated 27 new full time jobs,” according to “Trails and Economic Development,” a 2007 report of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

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