As the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, never has it been clearer to me the importance of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway is so much more than a road. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the temperate world. It is a living history museum protecting and telling the stories of Appalachian culture, music, and life. And as a recent study just reported, it is once again No. 1 in the country as an economic engine for the communities along its corridor.
The top ranking is no small feat considering the National Park Service manages 411 national parks and park units in the country. The Parkway’s 469-mile path from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a vital connection between hundreds of mountain communities that rely on tourism dollars. In the recent National Park Service Visitor Spending Effects Study, which examines the economic impacts of National Parks on communities and states, the Blue Ridge Parkway was No. 1 in all major categories. Total visitor spending was more than $952 million in 2015 with hotels ($334 million), restaurants ($184 million), retail outlets ($90 million), and recreation industries ($73 million) among the top categories. The Parkway also ranked No. 1 in providing jobs (15,337) and visitation (15.1 million), with a total economic impact of $1.3 billion.
Despite these terrific economic boosts to local communities, these numbers only tell one side of the story. The often hidden critical issue is how the National Park Service keeps up with the needs created by millions of visitors each year. The Parkway currently has more than $516 million in deferred maintenance needs. Buildings shuttered because of shortfalls in funding, crumbling infrastructure, and vacant staff positions can be seen and felt by the visiting public.
Those millions of visitors who travel the Parkway come for a quality experience. Once that experience begins to degrade, will they still come? Will they still support the businesses and communities that are inextricably linked to the Parkway? They are tough questions to face.
We are acting to ensure that today’s visitor and the next generations return to the Parkway. The Foundation is working to bridge the gap between what is needed to maintain the park properly and what is provided by the federal government. We can only do it when individuals, business owners, and entire communities recognize the Parkway’s value to their lifestyles and livelihoods. Working together, we can ensure a vibrant, healthy future for the Parkway and neighboring towns that benefit from its allure. Will you help take care of this beloved place that gives us so much in return? -Carolyn Ward
"Study: National Parks Contributed $32 Billion To National Economy In '15," National Parks Traveler, April 24, 2016
"Parkway, Smokies add 1.8 billion to local economy," Asheville Citizen-Times, April 29, 2016