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Summersville Convention and Visitors Bureau Annual Tourism Luncheon

Prepared Remarks
May 5, 2016

It is great to be here this afternoon with people who see the promise tourism holds for West Virginia.

The Summersville area offers a microcosm of our state’s rich beauty and recreational potential — from the thrill of whitewater rafting to the fun of waterskiing on Summersville Lake; from the scaling the heights while rock climbing to discovering hidden depths in what Skin Diver magazine has called “the Little Bahamas of the east.”

You have so much to do here in Summersville that it encourages visitors to slow down and take a break from life’s hectic pace.

And, from what I have heard, it is always a good idea to slow down in Summersville, especially when you are passing through on Route 19.

I know you are all working hard to make this community even more attractive for visitors, and that is important. Tourism is West Virginia’s future.

I can say that with authority since I am a return visitor to the state myself — or, as I prefer to put it, a born-again, born-again West Virginian.

The majestic features that define West Virginia as a tourist haven are among the factors that lured me back.

The rivers. The gorges. The mountain views. And, especially, the people.

I have served as president of some of the finest universities across the country in states from Rhode Island to Colorado, and I can tell you that West Virginia has a special aura.

As president of West Virginia University, I consider myself a salesman for our magnificent state and its even more magnificent people.

And it has been no struggle to come up with my pitch.

Not only is this state visually appealing, we are at an advantage geographically. West Virginia is within a 500-mile driving distance of 66 percent of the United States’ population.

When you think about that stat, you might wonder, “Wow. We could easily hop into a car and drive to D.C. or Cleveland or Charlotte or Pittsburgh today.”

Instead, what we should be thinking is, “Wow. People living in D.C. and Cleveland and Charlotte and Pittsburgh can hop into their cars and easily come visit West Virginia.”

So the challenge is, “How do we promote our state to that 66 percent of the country's population?”

The solution, I believe, rests on perception — our very own perception of our very own selves. We undervalue ourselves. One of the first things I noticed when I returned to West Virginia was that West Virginians remained, over all those years, too damn humble. And I mean humble to a fault.

Humility is the only thing standing in the wayof West Virginia taking its rightful place as an economic and tourism mecca.

We have great resources, and I am not just talking about coal, oil and gas.

Our greatest resource is our people. We must take pride in what we do, and we must talk more about it.

As Mohammed Ali said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” And we can back it up.

One of the ways the University has tried to relay a positive perception of itself is through our invigorating campaign called “Mountaineers Go First.”

You may have seen our 30-second commercial during football and basketball games. Or maybe you have seen it on posters or T-shirts or print ads.

That slogan — “Mountaineers Go First” — defines who we are: An institution of rugged determination, a unified voice that fearlessly pursues ideas, discoveries, victories and breakthroughs.

Our University is an extension of the state, therefore, “Mountaineers Go First” certainly applies to West Virginia as a whole.

I have seen West Virginia’s successes — and opportunities — firsthand while embarking on my infamous county tours.
As you may know, over the past two summers, I have traveled the highways and byways of this state, from Weirton to Welch and all points in between. And I am already hitting the road again this year.

I listen and learn — and probably taken too many selfies — at county fairs, mom-and-pop diners and 4-H camps.

Each encounter is like a spiritual experience for me.

I get to see the great success stories. But at the same time, I get to see the great struggles.

I see children who are rich in potential, but whose families lack basic needs.

I see communities thriving and communities faltering.

But most of all, I see opportunity. And promise.

People like Frank DeMarco are keeping the promise of tourism alive and well.

He is someone who earned both of his degrees at West Virginia University, went to Elkins to run the beautifully restored Victorian mansion that is the Graceland Inn, came back to Morgantown to run the Waterfront Place Hotel, and now teaches students in our hospitality and tourism program in our College of Business and Economics.

That program was a first-of-its-kind in this state when it was created in fall 2014.

At the time, only about 40 of 600 schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business had a hospitality degree program. And there were none in West Virginia.

Sadly, I cannot take all of the credit for that launch.

The pieces fell into place a long time ago — and it occurred organically due to the booming interest in the beautiful resorts and recreational activities throughout the Mountain State.

Over the years, the College of Business and Economics met regularly with hospitality officials to discuss the possibilities surrounding the evolving trend. Several people across the state came to us and said over and over again, “We need this. We need this type of academic program to complement the industry.” Students in the program gain real-world experience in restaurant and hotel management by spending time in learning labs.

In fact, the College of Business and Economics has already placed students in internships at Taziki's Mediterranean Café and the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania; Hilton Worldwide, which oversees Hilton, Hampton Inn, and eight other hotel brands; and at the corporate headquarters of IHG in Atlanta, which oversees Holiday Inn and nine other hotel brands.

Students who go through our hospitality and tourism program learn the tools to the trade.

They graduate and embark on management positions in hospitality and tourism across the globe — and here in West Virginia.

Hospitality and tourism, as you know, is West Virginia’s second-largest industry. It would not surprise me if someday it became Number One. The driving force in shaping the University's hospitality and tourism program has been its importance to West Virginia and the West Virginia economy.

However, graduating hospitality leaders is not the only thing our University is doing to promote tourism. We are bringing all our resources as West Virginia’s land-grant university to bear on this vital industry.

Let me share just a few examples:
  • To nurture budding entrepreneurs, we offer a Hospitality and Tourism category in our Statewide Business Plan Competition. Each year, a West Virginia college student receives $10,000 to jumpstart an innovative new business.
  • Our degree programs in Recreation, Parks and Tourism are training leaders for growing fields such as sustainable tourism and adventure education. The undergraduate program is one of only three in the country accredited by the Society of American Foresters.
  • Recognizing that craft beer tourism is a growing niche, we launched a craft beer certificate program, producing student-developed software technology for microbrewing and pursuing West Virginia's first hop farm.
  • West Virginia University Extension finds many ways to help citizens realize the benefits of tourism, from teaching farmers about agritourism opportunities to developing community-based tourism plans for places like Summersville.
Reaching out to communities is especially important right now. Just like other parts of the country, West Virginia has witnessed changes in job markets, unleashing a cascade of troubling economic and societal consequences.

Although manufacturing is still a vital part of our country’s overall economy, it is now clear that the jobs that have been lost in recent decades are not coming back.

Fostering prosperity for West Virginia is one of our University’s highest priorities, and that means promoting community resiliency.

That is what our land-grant mission is all about: Real-world application of knowledge and research for the public good — actions that will enact positive change in our neighborhoods, schools and businesses.

Consider Weirton, a town whose economic stability was uprooted with the drastic contraction of the steel industry beginning in the 1980s. Smart and loyal leaders are still forging the way forward. Our University has launched a conversation with community members who have lived through these industry shifts. We are learning from those who have found the grit and resilience to go about rebuilding their lives even as their mettle was tested again and again.

Through inter-disciplinary work that pairs University and external resources with front line community intelligence, we can find solutions that honor the culture and history of our communities.

Consider Harper’s Ferry, a historic destination and a driver of tourism in West Virginia. The small community of 300 residents relies heavily upon the 10,000 tourists that pass through it each week. The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places and the town is surrounded by a National Historical Park.

Suddenly, last summer, everything was in jeopardy when a fire wiped out part of the town’s business district. I called their mayor, Greg Vaughn and asked, “What do you need to help your town get back on its feet?”

We sent some of our experts over to Harpers Ferry to meet with the residents and officials to formulate a response plan. Several of our colleges and departments, from Extension to Engineering, stepped in to provide support. The University’s devotion to its core mission of applying real-world knowledge and application for the public good does not end in Harpers Ferry.

And our campus does not end at Morgantown's borders.

West Virginia University is West Virginia’s university.

This state is our campus. And as the flagship, land-grant university, we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to empower our citizens.

Let us work hand-in-hand to ensure that the promise of tourism is a promise kept for West Virginia.

Now, I would be happy to take your questions.