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West Virginia whitewater industry official blames chemical spill in part for drop in bookings

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A roller coaster of rapids will await thrill-seekers for the start of the Gauley River whitewater season as southern West Virginia businesses anticipate an influx of visitors to finish out a tourism season that for a time simmered in the stigma of a chemical spill in Charleston.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the valves from the Summersville Dam next Friday to begin a series of releases that will stretch the Gauley season through mid-October.

It was a different type of water — tainted tap water — that dominated talk earlier in the year in the state's tourism industry. A Jan. 9 chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston prompted a restriction on water use for 300,000 residents in nine counties.

The restriction lasted for days. Businesses, especially in southern West Virginia, heard the discussion for months. The state spent extra money on a tourism campaign to bolster its image.

The spill's direct impact on tourism may never be known because money won't be spent to research it, said Dave Arnold, a member of the state Tourism Commission and a partner in whitewater outfitter Adventures on the Gorge.

What is known is that businesses — whether their numbers were up, flat or down — survived and have moved on.

The spill had no direct relation to the whitewater industry because the Elk River flows into the Kanawha River, which is downriver from the New and Gauley rivers.

"There's no question this had some effect," Arnold said. "I do know it didn't help us."

Arnold predicted that trips for his company on the New River alone will be down about 7 per cent compared to last year.

"Most outfitters were down slightly this year despite being very aggressive," he said. "We spent a lot of money on marketing."

Despite some outfitters' efforts to reinvent themselves by adding tree zip-line tours and family oriented activities, the state industry has seen a steady decline since peaking at 257,446 visits in 1995. According to state Division of Natural Resources figures, there were 142,860 trips taken last year, about the same as 2012.

Two whitewater outfitters, Adventures on the Gorge and ACE Adventure Resort, comprised nearly two-thirds of those trips.

To bolster its image in the wake of the chemical spill, the state doubled the Division of Tourism's budget for the spring advertising campaign with a $1.2 million cash infusion in April. The extra funds helped expand the campaign into several Ohio markets, along with radio ads in select cities in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia.

The spill initially forced Charleston-area restaurants and hotels to close, and business tax collections over the first five months of the year were down about 5 per cent before rebounding in June, said Alisa Bailey, president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors bureau.

"I do believe that the people are assured" about the quality of the water, she said. "We're moving on."

In the tourism-driven community of Fayetteville near the New River, Secret Sandwich Society shop owner Lewis Rhinehart said there was some concern earlier in the year among businesses after the chemical spill, but that quickly faded.

"There were certainly some doom-and-gloom people saying it's going to end the whitewater industry," Rhinehart said. "Nothing like that happened."

Rhinehart said he saw an increase in business from customers who arrived from Charleston in the months after the chemical spill.

"We had an upsurge in the middle of winter," he said. "It opened people's eyes. People who live in Charleston could come to Fayetteville. It was a good ambassadorship for the town."

Rhinehart said very few customers at his shop mentioned the spill this summer. At a nearby campground operated by the non-profit American Alpine Club, manager Paul Nelson said he received no inquiries from prospective campers concerned about the quality of the water.

Business at the campground so far this year has been better than a year ago. The peak climbing season is mid-September to November.

"It will be interesting to see how it goes," Nelson said.

At Water Stone Outdoors, a Fayetteville business that provides gear to rock climbers, business has been flat, and co-owner Kenny Parker said the dollars available to the traditional customer base for tourism in the region have "just dried up." He also said the lingering concerns over the chemical spill "definitely affected us."

"I have friends in the lodging business," Parker said. "When they're getting calls from people asking about (the spill), to me, that's bad. Those people who come for lodging, a certain percentage of those people are going to find my store. I might have had growth if it weren't for that."

But recreational visits to the New River Gorge National River are up about 4.2 per cent this year compared to last year, according to the National Park Service. Although much smaller in numbers, visits to the Gauley River National Recreation Area are up 33 per cent and visits to the Bluestone National Scenic River in southern West Virginia are up 6.5 per cent.

Andrea Ness of Dimondale, Michigan, hadn't heard about the spill when she was among a group that went rock climbing and whitewater rafting on the New River in June. She enjoyed the experience so much that she plans to return with seven others in September for a trip on the Gauley.

"Once people are out there, they love it and they want to come back," she said.

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