The City of Beckley and the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA) are seeking federal funding for the first phase of development to secure Beckley’s place as the gateway to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Mayor Rob Rappold announced on Monday.
“It’s probably one of the most revolutionary ways to put Beckley on the map that has been around in a long time,” said Rappold.
Rappold reported that NRGRDA has asked Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Shelley Moore Capito for federal funding to build a welcome center and city park in the area of the historic Alfred Beckley Mill in Piney Gorge. The park will include a dog park.
The first phase is likely to be $ 7-8 million, which is the federal ceiling for such projects, though Rappold said the exact number was not pinned down Monday.
The development will highlight existing hiking trails in Piney Creek Gorge, crafted by city trail developer Gary Moorefield, and feature a number of rock formations available for climbing.
Future development of the site will include an amphitheater for the West Virginia theater, the Mayor added. The current amphitheater is located in Grandview Park.
Alderman Tom Sopher, District 1 pioneered the Mill Reclamation Project, which when completed is expected to stretch from Beckley to the New River and to Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County, approximately 12 miles away.
Sopher was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
Through Sopher’s efforts, which began in 2013, the mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. This was a lengthy process with local archaeologist David Fuerst, funded by the Beckley Area Foundation, the Carter Family Foundation, and the West Virginia Division conducting a dig for culture and history.
Sopher, the chairman of the Raleigh County Historical Society, had been pushing the project for years, Rappold said. The town has approximately 100 acres in the area of the mill that could be developed for the proposed recreation project.
In December, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was added as the country’s newest national park, making Piney Gorge a candidate as a gateway.
In March, Congress voted in favor of ear tags for the first time since 2011 – Congress provisions that allocate federal funding to specific projects.
Manchin and Capito are both members of the Senate Funds Committee, which makes laws on the use of federal funds.
Rappold said city officials and local developers are confident that earmarked funds will now be available for the mill development project. Previously, the scale of the project was too costly for private investors to fully fund.
“There were some private fundraisers that were later canceled when it just looked like it was more of a project than funding was possible at the time,” Rappold said. “Tom has never lost his dream, and at a meeting with Jina Belcher (NRGRDA Managing Director) about three weeks ago, we discussed how the ear tags were reopened and made available again through Congress.
“It just seems like the stars have aligned and we are on board and excited to see the prospect of Sen. Manchin and Sen. Capito in raising funds to begin the first two phases of the project become.” said the mayor.
According to Rappold, due to the city’s relationship with a national park, the project has a good chance of receiving federal funding. Moorefield, a town worker, has already developed a number of hiking trails in Piney Creek Gorge, and a number of large, beginner rocks rise up from the gorge. The development of the mill project will draw more attention to the existing attractions.
“Outdoor recreation and attraction are such a huge element of what attracts people to our region,” noted Rappold.
Rappold said the city does not need to purchase land for development, although a police shooting range and dog training camp will need to be relocated from the urban area that is part of the proposed first two phases of the project.
The city is currently working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of the Environment (WVDEP) to remediate an existing landfill on the area.
The groundbreaking will not take place for at least 18 months, which will give city officials time to move and reuse land for the shooting range and dog park, the mayor said.
The mill is accessible from New Jersey Avenue via Clarence W. Meadows Memorial Boulevard or East Beckley Bypass, Rappold said.
“The Welcome Center and the park are the first phase for us,” said Rappold. “In all fairness, in later stages, in addition to the development of the trails, we expect the very strong possibility that the West Virginia theater may have a new home.
“I’ve known actors who would be drawn to an amphitheater there. It’s literally within sight of I-64 at the East Beckley exit.”
Sopher said in 2017 that the mill was part of a larger plan to develop the Piney Creek Trail, a project that, when completed, is expected to stretch from Beckley to the New River and to Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County. He reported that the mill would attract people from Interstate 64, Exit 124, and that it would eventually become important to Exit 44, relative to the Harper Road exit.
Local orthodontist and landowner Dr. Tom Jarrett began investigating the feasibility of placing the amphitheater near the mill in 2017.
TWV director Scott Hill was not immediately available for comment Monday night.