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Dam helps spur development in Lewis Co.

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

Lewis County is in transition. Once known for superior farmland, the area now is focusing more on recreation and tourism, as a result of increased economic development from Stonewall Jackson Lake.

"It was all farmland and (the lake) changed the whole ecology of that area," said Gus Douglass, state agriculture commissioner. "That was part of the economy that just folded up."

The productive, flat fields were flooded for the project, an event that signified the beginning of the transformation, he said.

"The hardware stores, feed stores and businesses that supply a farming community disappeared because they lost their customers," Douglass recalled.

In 1982, Douglass estimated a loss of $2 million to $3 million in agriculture-generated income annually in Lewis County and a 10 percent loss of Lewis County's prime agriculture land due to the dam, according to records of testimony from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"At the time I had great concern. I thought it was a detriment," he said recently. "I was speaking for the people I represented, which were the farmers, and my concern was the people being displaced."

Sam Garrett, one of the owners of the Buckhannon Stockyards, still remembers the names of his customers from Lewis County who were forced to sell their farms and livestock. He had been buying cattle from them since the mid '70s.

"Their moving took a lot a volume each year from us," Garrett said. "It never was the same after they sold out. Many of them never had livestock after that."

Years later there is no denying the benefits from Stonewall Jackson Dam, Douglass said. Development is on the rise, agreed Robin Poling, economic development authority director for Lewis County.

"Everyone wants to get in on the ground floor and businesses have started to move in," she said.

Those businesses include a convenience store with a service station and sandwich shop, a cabin rental business, an oil and gas exploration company and an environmental engineering service, she said.

While new businesses are slowly cropping up to reap the benefits of increased tourism, existing businesses are also benefiting.

"We have seen some traffic already and expect in the future to see a much greater spin-off," said David Lester, owner of Heritage Antiques and Collectibles in Weston.

Weston is working on a downtown enhancement project to help attract visitors to downtown, Lester said. Larry Bennett of Bennett Home and Auto Supply Inc. in Weston has seen a few travelers already wander into his store.

"Some people have come in for tires on their motor homes," he said. "But they aren't really shopping for furniture or appliances."

Bennett, like many downtown merchants, is optimistic about the future. He believes the new development at the lake will draw more visitors to Weston and they will stay longer.

The real estate market is seeing some change as well, according to Ethel Andrews, a sales associate for Century 21 in Buckhannon. Andrews has been a Realtor for the past 20 years and has seen a tremendous boost in interest for properties near the lake.

"We've had so many calls that we can't fill the demand," she said. "Sales have increased in the last four years in that area by 25 percent and people are building as close to the water as they can get."

The new resort and convention center at the park will create more than 200 jobs and support a variety of other growth in the area, according to developer Rudy Henley of McCabe-Henley-Durbin, the resort's developer.

"Hopefully, new businesses will come into the community with the improvement in cultural and recreational lifestyle, and there will be more investment in the area," he said.

The additions are going to make Stonewall more upscale than the state's other 35 parks, said John Rader, director of the Division of Natural Resources.

"It's going to be great for West Virginia and because it's in a great location I think there will be a lot of Canadian traffic stopping to visit," he said. "The resort will be an incentive for people to stay overnight instead of just passing through."

If all goes as predicted, the outlook is promising, according to Randy Childs, an economist at West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

"Two hundred jobs is fairly significant and those jobs will generate other jobs for service workers at restaurants and retail stores," Childs said. "Also, another impact will be the construction jobs from the resort as well as the visitors' expenditures."

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.

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