The award announcement was made Wednesday in West Virginia as part of a package of POWER investments across the Appalachian Region totaling more than $26.78 million.
The POWER Initiative supports efforts to create a more vibrant economic future for coal-impacted communities by cultivating economic diversity, enhancing job training and re-employment opportunities, creating jobs in existing or new industries, and attracting new sources of investment.
More than half of the Pennsylvania Wilds' 12 counties are impacted by current coal-industry contractions, according to industry data. Collectively the region has seen a loss of 744 coal jobs since 2000, with 434 of those occurring in the last five years.
Tourism is a growing industry in the region, accounting for $1.7 billion in annual visitor spending. Over the last decade a vast alliance of partners including state and federal partners, county and local governments, visitor bureaus, legislators, businesses, heritage areas, economic development agencies and other nonprofits have worked together to grow nature tourism in the Pennsylvania Wilds as a way to create jobs, diversify local economies, inspire stewardship and improve quality of life. The region is known for its more than 2 million acres of public land; it is also home to two National Wild & Scenic Rivers, the largest wild elk herd in the Northeast and some of the darkest skies in the country.
As part of the Pennsylvania Wilds initiative, strategic state infrastructure investments have resulted in many new nature and heritage tourism attractions coming online in the region in recent years, including the Elk Country Visitor Center, the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park, stargazing amenities at Cherry Springs State Park/International Dark Sky park, the PA Lumber Museum, and major new interpretive visitor centers at Sinnemahoning State Park and Kinzua Bridge State Park. These places have become economic engines for surrounding communities and across the region.
"Kudos to the PA Wilds Center, county officials, regional planning organizations and tourism partners who together are creating new, exciting opportunities for their communities and local businesses," said Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. "This work has been very gratifying to our agency and it has exceeded all of our expectations as part of our Conservation Landscape Program."
The POWER grant, which is being leveraged by support from the PA Dept. of Community & Economic Development, PA Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources and the PA Wilds Center, will advance these efforts, said Tataboline Enos, executive director of the PA Wilds Center, a regional nonprofit that helps spearhead and coordinate partner investments in the landscape.
"All of these investments will allow us to expand The Wilds Cooperative of PA, which focuses on growing and clustering the unique local businesses central to place-based tourism development," Enos said. "It will allow us to grow our regional network of craft producers and to better marry their products to the regional tourism brand and visitor experience, like we have begun to do at our new gift shop at Kinzua Bridge State Park, creating real work opportunities for local artisans and micro producers. It will allow us to better push foot traffic from these new, world-class visitor facilities we have, out to businesses around them. Lastly, it will allow us to begin to establish a sustainable regional marketing program, something that has challenged the Wilds effort since regional marketing grants were cut from the state budget several years back."
The Pennsylvania Wilds includes the counties of Warren, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Clinton, Lycoming, Cameron, Elk, Forest, Clarion, Clearfield, Jefferson and the northern part of Centre County.
Enos said activities under the POWER grant are slated to begin in January. The PA Wilds Center will be doing focused outreach in coal-impacted communities to help residents and creative entrepreneurs there better understand the tools and resources offered through The Wilds Cooperative of PA and other PA Wilds programs.
"Pennsylvania has long been a favorite travel destination for many, offering rich history and culture in a wide range of settings from sleek cities, to rugged woodlands, to rolling countryside," said DCED Secretary Davin. "DCED's support of this initiative bolsters tourism business development throughout the PA Wilds region and helps create new opportunities for coal-impacted communities to partake in the success of the commonwealth's tourism industry. We are pleased to contribute to this important effort and look forward to continued partnership with ARC to benefit Pennsylvania's communities going forward."
Congressman Glenn Thompson, who serves most of the Pennsylvania Wilds region, echoed that sentiment in a statement released Wednesday.
"The Pennsylvania Wilds have plenty to offer, from canoeing and kayaking on the region's rivers, to all types of recreation in the Allegheny National Forest," Thompson said. "I am proud that this program will assist economic development throughout the region and provide local small businesses the technical assistance necessary to create jobs. These types of partnerships are essential to the longevity of our communities."
Enos said she is grateful for the Appalachian Regional Commission's POWER investment in the Wilds work.
"Nature tourism can't solve all of our region's economic challenges, but thanks to sustained strategic planning and investment by a strong alliance of partners - including ARC -- it has emerged as a real growth industry," Enos said. "It is a critical sector for us to grow for the jobs it creates, and for how it addresses quality of life issues important to residents and to the region's major employers. Growing nature tourism was important prior to the current coal-industry contraction and is only more important in light of it."