Good Morning! What a phenomenal day to once again celebrate the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. For those unfamiliar, I’m Jina Belcher, Executive Director for the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA) – the organization legislatively tasked with supporting job growth and business attraction throughout the region that houses the Federally protected lands of this National Park. Many of you have heard me speak before regarding the founding of NRGRDA and the visionary leaders that recognized the, at the time, National River and its ability to be leveraged for regional growth. Many of those leaders are in this room today.
For those that are familiar with NRGRDA, you’re probably wondering why the woman most often found obsessing over sewer and water pipes is speaking at an event celebrating conservation and preservation. Well, I welcome you to non-traditional economic development. Balancing nature and commerce takes collaboration and shared understanding to ensure we protect and leverage our natural assets to achieve our fullest economic potential. In order to do that, I’ll share the two guiding principles that are key to achieve success in this region:
In the beginning of my career, a Maryland colleague at Frostburg State University told me that successful economic development is accomplished at tables of the willing. That means surrounding a project with those that are willing to collaborate without bias or personal gain, willing to ensure shared vision and values, and willing to have trust in one another to remain accountable to the larger group. No single group represented in Appalachia today possesses the ability to achieve positive economic impact alone. However, together, the collective knowledge and capacity surrounding our willing table can and will continue to far exceed the intended success our Federal delegation assumed when they trusted all of us with the re-designation of the park. The NRGRDA team is fortunate to have the trust of those representatives to facilitate the willing table that we’ve titled the NRG Working Group. The Working Group is focused on working with local, state, regional, and federal stakeholders to share resources, develop comprehensive infrastructure plans, prioritize project funding for projects the gateway communities to public lands, and strategize incentives to ensure implementation for key projects. This newly convened, wiling table of public and private sector partners leverages collective capacity for a greater economic impact. If you’re interested in joining, feel free to see any of my staff today to learn more.
Our second guiding principle is one that NRGRDA strives to educate on every day we do this work. A longtime industrial development mentor told me ‘Jina, you have to Listen to the dirt because the dirt we’re standing on today and everyday knows its fullest potential and it’s our job to ensure we listen and follow its lead.’ Now, when I mentioned this over the dinner table last night, my nine-year-old daughter could only assume I was meeting with Dr. Seuss and the Lorax today and insisted that we all take an economic development lesson from Thneedville. But that’s when I realized, traditional economic development is so often laser focused on industrial development and ensuring we create sites and locations conducive for the new industry growth that people often forget to keep our natural assets and quality of place top of mind when making big development decisions. We have to remind ourselves that ‘highest and best use’ means developing where it’s best and conserving where we can ensure quality of place for those that visit and most importantly those that live here. The preservation that we’re celebrating today represents leadership that ‘listens to the dirt’ and understands the long-term sustainability associated with the outdoor industry and its public lands.
In closing, thank you to all of those mentioned today that continue to sit around a willing table to listen to the dirt. And I hope you’ll all remember to channel your inner Lorax because, unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.
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