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Making a play for paddlers with blueway / June 20, 2014

The Southern Virginia Wild Blueway was officially opened Monday, June 16 by Virginia Secretary of Commerce Maurice Jones as he rang the “opening bell” at a Staunton River State Park ceremony.

The Blueway is a water trail encompassing over 100 miles of paddling along the Banister, Dan and Staunton Rivers and several hundred miles along Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston. It includes more than 30 access points for kayak or canoe launches and numerous signs, some explaining the sites along the river route.

Halifax County Tourism Director Linda Shepperd said, “the stakeholders are proud to promote education, stewardship and entrepreneurialism through this trail.”

Monday’s celebration was also the official launch of the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway website and promotional campaign, a regional marketing partnership spearheaded by Halifax and Mecklenburg counties to make area rivers and waterways — once known primarily among anglers — into community treasures to be enjoyed by canoers and kayakers.

Speaking to assembled guests, Jones praised officials from Mecklenburg and Halifax “for using the assets you have,” for the economic benefit of the area.

That message was echoed by Halifax Delegate James Edmunds, who called the Blueway “great for the community at large.” Edmunds envisions the Blueway doing for Southside Virginia what the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has done for Birmingham, Alabama.

Years ago, no one wanted to go to Birmingham, Edmunds said, adding that people associated the area with backlash against civil rights protestors. The area was economically depressed. But then, the CEO of the state’s retirement system came up with the idea of creating the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — linking 11 championship-caliber golf courses across the state that were designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

Soon, people were traveling to Alabama to play golf, stay in the hotels, shop in the stores, and eat in the restaurants. It was an economic boon for the city and the state. That is how this blueway can help Southside Virginia bounce back economically, Edmunds said.

State Senator Frank Ruff praised local officials for their work to promote the vision he first discussed with Scott Murray of the Roanoke River Basin Association Upper Reach project, nearly a decade ago.

Murray, a landscape architect and avid canoer and kayaker, wondered why the river bain — which is blessed with miles of scenic blueways — was not promoting this asset among paddling enthusiasts. Murray shared his vision with Ruff: of water trails marked with interpretive signage, and accessed through a series of boat launches.

The water trail is the culmination of the efforts of Murray’s Upper Reach project, which mapped the trails, developed and installed the signs and many of the launches, and the tourism arms of both Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. Local officials worked with Mikula Harris, a marketing firm of Roanoke which developed the logo, the Virginia Tourism Corporation which provided seed money, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. It is, in the words of Mecklenburg County Tourism Coordinator, Justin Kearns, “proof of what you can do with the right passionate people.”

Clyde Cristman, Director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, sees the Blueway as the way to tap into the nearly 330,000 annual visitors to Virginia State Parks and the $700,000 in revenue they bring to the state.

Roanoke marketing firm Mikula Harris has developed a website, and maps and brochures, everything a traveler would need to plan a canoe or kayak outing in the area.

The website contains links to hotels, bed and breakfast sites, campgrounds, and restaurants. There are even links to area festivals and happenings. It also offers information on water levels, maps of the blueways, and details about canoe and kayak rentals and launch sites.

For now, Kearns said, the plan is to focus their marketing on a “highly sought after demographic, younger people who enjoy hiking, camping, canoeing and outdoor life.” In addition to the web page, the counties have placed ads in Blue Ridge Magazine, which according to Kearns is very popular among their target audience.

Both Shepperd and Kearns believe the website will have a great economic impact on the area because the local blueways are, in the words of Kearns, a paddling experience unlike any other.

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