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Monday, October 20, 2014

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U.Va. Institute Helps Clinch River Valley Explore Economic Revitalization

With the aid of the University of Virginia, a group of Southwest Virginians is exploring ways to put the Clinch River in the center of an economic revitalization effort.

The Clinch River – one of the most biodiverse in North America – has become a central point of the U.Va. Institute for Environmental Negotiation's mission to mediate environmental issues and facilitate community solutions. Institute director Frank Dukes' history in the region dates back to 1990, when he began working on a conflict involving the coal-mining industry and its impact on water resources. Each year since 2000, Dukes has brought 20 to 30 fellows of the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, who hail from all areas of the state, to the Southwest Virginia region to learn about its challenges and the ways that its communities and people are addressing those challenges.

An associate at the institute, Christine Gyovai – a U.Va. Architecture School alumna and also principal at Dialogue and Design Associates, a Charlottesville firm focused on building thriving ecosystems and resilient communities, has worked over the past eight years on economic diversification in central Appalachia. Several communities have noted a widespread desire for an inclusive forum to discuss regional issues and develop ideas collaboratively for the future. She noted the importance of having a place where people – including those not traditionally part of economic development conversations – can come together to talk about their community and its future.

The Clinch River Valley Initiative, or CRVI, began with a September 2010 workshop held at U.Va.'s College at Wise focused on "Building Local Economies in Southwest Virginia," which provided a forum for community members to discuss ways to join economic and environmental well-being.

The next Clinch River Valley Initiative meeting will take place Aug. 8 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands. Afterward, a community picnic featuring the work of the CRVI, live music and collected local stories, will take place from 6 to 8 p.m.

"We spent several dozen hours at the beginning of the project in conversations with local leaders and community members," Gyovai said. "Listening at the beginning was important in many ways, and continues to be."

In addition to several other areas of potential development discussed at the meeting, participants expressed concern about lack of access to the Clinch River, as well as maintaining its vitality and finding the resources to do so.

Over the course of several subsequent meetings, various stakeholders – with facilitation and coordination support from the institute, as well as partners such as the Virginia Tourism Commission, the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, nonprofit organizations, local businesses and the state departments of Conservation and Recreation, Forestry, and Housing and Community Development – came together to articulate five goals for the area:

• Create a Clinch River State Park;
• Develop and integrate access points, trails and campgrounds along the river;
• Enhance water quality;
• Develop and enhance environmental education opportunities for all community members in the watershed;
• Connect downtown revitalization and outdoor recreation efforts along the river while expanding entrepreneurship and marketing opportunities.

Five groups are working to develop an Action Plan that will move each of these goal areas forward toward the CRVI vision to advance local economic prosperity while also ensuring improved river health.

"We help provide a forum for community members to discuss what they want to do with their community while helping to keep the overall CRVI parts connected and moving forward," Gyovai said. "This is a unique effort in central Appalachia in terms of the number of people involved, from students to business leaders to elders. It has a substantial amount of momentum and could serve as an example for other regions, particularly throughout central Appalachia."

In addition to these workshop events, contributions to the Clinch River effort have occurred on Grounds. Graduate students in the School of Architecture's Department of Urban and Environmental Planning [link: http://www.arch.virginia.edu/academics/disciplines/planning] have worked on the initiative; the Collaborative Planning for Sustainability course that Dukes teaches annually has included student projects involving the region for three straight years.

Gyovai predicted that more coursework will focus on the area in the near future. The Clinch River Valley Initiative has been featured at national conferences as well, including an Environmental Conflict Resolution Conference in Tucson, Arizona in May. In addition, the first Clinch River Environmental Education Symposium is scheduled to take place next summer.

CRVI is connected to the Appalachian Prosperity Project, (LINK: http://www.approject.org/) which seeks to advance education, health and business endeavors in the region by fostering collaboration between U.Va., U.Va.'s College at Wise, the Virginia Coalfields Coalition and other private entities and community members. In addition, the Institute for Environmental Negotiation's Central Appalachia Food Heritage Project. (LINK: http://appfoodheritage.com/) helps to foster community-building and thriving local economies through the foodways of central Appalachia.

The Clinch River effort has already led to the development of three riverside access points to support recreational activities, water quality improvements, environmental education events and progress toward a potential Clinch River State Park. In addition, the State Park Action Group has received more funding to perform an economic impact study focused on the potential merits of a river-based state park.

Those interested in learning more about the effort and upcoming events should visit www.clinchriverva.com.

– by Preston Pezzaro

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