Our Deepest Fear? Elkhorn City Can be Powerful … beyond measure! A mini Manifesto on Economic Development in Elkhorn City, Kentucky


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’  …

One of the greatest challenges that we face as a community in Elkhorn City is the fear that we as a community are powerful beyond measure. The above quote from Marian Williamson not only applies to individuals but it also applies to collective groups. I’ve struggled with trying to build Elkhorn City for over 15 years through the Elkhorn City Are Heritage Council which is a non-profit whose mission is to protect and to preserve the heritage of Elkhorn City and to promote eco and adventure tourism in Elkhorn City.

It is almost a cliché at this point that Elkhorn City has so much potential. The favorite quote I always hear is “Elkhorn City can be another Gatlinburg.”  It is true we could be another Gatlinburg … we could be a lot of things ,we could be one of the greatest tourism towns in the Commonwealth of Kentucky bar none. Elkhorn City has all the natural assets that it takes to attract visitors to our community to enjoy the mountains, the river, the trails, and the unique heritage that we have as the people. But we as a community has always been afraid that if we do build it they will come and what if they do what will we become.

The quote about Gatlinburg is always amusing to me because I’ve never wanted to be another Gatlinburg I wanted to be Elkhorn City Kentucky. Gatlinburg is crowded and congested and grew at a pace that should have been a little more thought out and a little more slow. The one thing we can learn from the growth of Gatlinburg as a tourism town is that Gatlinburg grew because it was a trail town it is located at the beginning of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park it was a town that catered to people who wanted to go into the smokies to hike, fish, bike, and enjoy nature.  That is what started Gatlinburg’s upward climb to a booming economic community.

Elkhorn City also has great natural assets that it sets right in the middle of, no we don’t have a National Park but we’ve got the Breaks Interstate park which is a totally unique and gorgeous park the grand canyon of the south, the Russell Fork river, the pine mountain trail, the new great eastern trail which is going to be coming through Elkhorn city, the trans America bike trail which already runs through Elkhorn city. We see growth and visitors right now on a small level but, there are things we need to do as a community to enhance their experience and to attract more people and we can do it nice good clean intelligent ways that will bring prosperity to our community and the economic growth that we need.

Elkhorn City needs to be an original. In the world of music there’s an old saying that cover bands don’t change the world only original bands do. Perhaps are greatest challenge when you say we could be another Gatlinburg we don’t want to be another Gatlinburg we don’t need to be another Gatlinburg we need to be Elkhorn City. But that doesn’t mean that we do not look for the positives and the negatives regarding the Gatlinburg story and how they became a trail town. It also goes back to the point I made earlier, that we are powerful beyond measure and that’s probably our greatest fear as a community is that we could be “another Gatlinburg” I know that’s one thing that scares me to death because I don’t think we should be another Gatlinburg but we should take some of the positive things that were done in Gatlinburg and learn from them and don’t go the negative ones.

For instance, the new US 460 is coming along we need to do our downtown development in a nice quaint way that is inviting for a person to come downtown and spend a few hours that is not hectic, that is not loud, that your time in Elkhorn City flows just like the river with quaint shops and quaint things to do.

Elkhorn City’s greatest asset is that all the trails (Pine Mountain, Great Eastern and Trans-America) lead into the middle of the town. Can we grow in other aspects in what I call the noisy way Gatlinburg did? Sure we can, we have annexed all the property along US 460 so we can grow we can take that kind of growth and put it there and become a unique quaint downtown that attracts the cultural heritage tourist and the adventure tourist and the trail user.
The trail user right now is our most important demographic for bringing new money into the city. I myself has personally observed so far in 2012 483 bicyclist along the trans American trail and I observe them when I’m eating at one of our local restaurants, that means there eating there too, and they are usually spending about 10 dollars a head, according to the information that I have from the owner, so its easy to do the math on what kind of impact that trail has on that restaurant. And you also have to understand that I didn’t see all the users on the trail some came through, I missed some, and some did business other places. Right now the only businesses that are capitalizing on our trail users are our restaurants but there’s other ways that other retail businesses can capitalize on the trail users. Take a look at Sheryl Ramey’s recent blog post on my blog about how she came back to town as a tourist and wanted to spend some money on items from her home town that she could take back and show her friends, whether it be trinkets or any number of things. Not one of our retail businesses had any Elkhorn City souvenirs!

One of the most important things we can do as a community is develop the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council’s, Russell Fork white water play park initiative in downtown,(link) which is a project which will go in and improve the river from a river users prospective from a kayaker and a paddler prospective and from a tubers prospective. There’s six specific places downtown where the river can be tweaked in a safe way that would promote more boaters to boat the section of river that is downtown and make it more exciting and thrilling for them.

We know from a host of other communities who have done similar projects that the economic impact of white water parks in the downtowns can be anywhere from 1 million dollars a year up to 10 million dollars a year. We know that for every boater that are in these white water parks there’s usually 10 to 20 people who are observing them so that would create a wonderful opportunity for more people to be spending time downtown which opens up all kinds of potential for new business in the downtown area whether it be coffee shops retail businesses any number of things. We can also look at development of the river from the prospective of a business development the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) established an outdoor recreation company located at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the Nantahala River in rural Swain County, North Carolina, that has proven to be a shining success story. Originally a roadside inn, the company has evolved into one of the largest recreation companies in the nation and one of western Carolina’s largest employers. In 2010, NOC contributed $85,386,489 to the local economy while providing a total of 1,061 jobs. Another successful eco-tourism example is nearby Damascus, Virginia where 20,000 people hike into town for the annual “Trail Days” celebration and if we do things to improve our river and improve our trail systems and improve the users we can have a business or businesses that have just as much economic impact on our community and we’ll raise the quality of lives for all the residents it would raise property values enormously and help us through hard economic times.

14 responses to “Our Deepest Fear? Elkhorn City Can be Powerful … beyond measure! A mini Manifesto on Economic Development in Elkhorn City, Kentucky

  1. I live in Louisville and in this last year visited Elkhorn City on business. It is beautiful to say the least. Your blueprint does lead to economic success. I spend a lot of time and money in a section of downtown Louisville that just 25 years ago was mostly old industrial and slummy, it is now called NULU and has gained some national kudos. The on the river portion of Madison, Indiana is a destination spot as well due to the quaint shops and restaurants. I hope you are successful in your efforts and message. It does not take a Hardrock Cafe or Ripley’s Museum to attract folks.

  2. Timothy Belcher

    Thanks for you comment Jeff. Using Elkhorn City’s assets for economic growth is an educational process for alot of out local residents. We are slowly but surely on the way.

  3. Good read Tim!!! Keep up the good work.

  4. Ballard Shumate

    My wife and I just moved back to Elkhorn City last year. She grew up here and always talked about what a nice place it was to grow up. Now I see what she was talking about. There are so many opportunities for getting outside and enjoying trails, mountains, and the river, that it’s just amazing that more people don’t know about Elkhorn City and Breaks Interstate Park.

    I worked for several years in Georgetown and when I would talk about coming to the Breaks, invariably people would say “where’s that….I’ve never heard of it?” If we could get the word out about Breaks Park and the trails that cross through the city…..then get the river play park started, this would be one heck of a destination.

    I’m glad to be here and look forward to being part of the Heritage Council and other civic projects to help Elkhorn City grow. I know we’ve got a lot of work to do, but WOW, what potential we’ve got.

  5. Pingback: When it comes to Eco-Adventure Tourism; Elkhorn City has it all! So Let’s Get It Done! | Life in a Small Town Law Office

  6. You make think about coming over and going into big debt and putting in a shop/cafe and dreaming and enjoying.

  7. I like what everyone has to say & hope someday it will all come to pass,it takes people with a dream & slowly but surley the little town is wakeing up,it has come a long way in the last few yrs.It’s a nice place to live and a good place to visit, those who are trying so hard to get things done don’t give up.
    look what’s happened to Pikeville who would have ever thought it would become what it is today a” little big town” in the heart of the mountains.
    Go visit Elkhoirn City it has a lot to offer, I like all the beautiful churches,those beautiful Mts, & moist of all the friendly people.I’ve been gone a lot of years but when I do get to go back for a visit it still feels like home,

  8. Thanks for the Comment Doris. I think this is a disscussion that needs to keep going.

  9. Your article got our interest and we will check Elkhorn out on our next hiking trip. Is there a good place to get a “tourist” overview on the web? None of the galleries worked on the city page: http://www.elkhorncity.org/gallery

  10. Timothy Belcher


    Check out some of the other posts on the blog. I give an overview of Elkhorn CIty Trails and other tourists things. Also, the Breaks Interstate Park Website is good. The Breaks is 6 miles form Elkhorn City. You can also look at http://www.russellfork.info for information on the River. I called the webmaster at http://www.elkhorncity.org and let me know the photos where not working. Thanks for you interest.

  11. I love Elkhorn City! I would really love the opportunity to invest, in a major economical way, in a City I believe so much in. The people in Elkhorn City are one of it’s greatest assets. You’ll find none greater and from what I can gather, it’s a generational thing. It’s in the genes. They are just genuinely nice as a way of life. The environment is beautiful and the people are outstanding. Believe me. I’ve traveled a bit and I know ugly. This ain’t it!

  12. I think a big elephant in the room is that Elkhorn City is not the Breaks and vice versa. The white water tradition links the two, but other than that, Elkhorn is a 20-30 minute drive to the Breaks. And the natural beauty of the area doesn’t necessarily make it a pretty drive, either. The road isn’t well-maintained, there is litter everywhere (think old tires, not just wrappers and such), kudzu is strangling every other hillside, and there is no reason to stop anywhere along the way. And no one in a position to do anything seems to care. I’m getting married in the Breaks Interstate Park in May and every time I’ve been up there to plan this winter, all I can think is “wow, I’m glad there will be leaves on the trees to hide most of this come Springtime.”

    So, part of what I’m getting at is that Elkhorn needs more than just the Breaks to hang its hat on. The article mentions that there’s nowhere to buy Elkhorn souvenirs, but if all you have to bring potential consumers into town is a once-a-year whitewater event and thru-traffic to the Breaks, then asking someone to start a business selling souvenirs is like asking someone to burn their money. If we’re talking about trails, where are they in Elkhorn? I lived in Pike Co. for 17 years of my life and don’t know of any open to the public. Is it because just over the ridges, the mountains look like this: http://imgur.com/sM8PKuY ? Not trying to be cynical, I am truly curious. I love Elkhorn and the surrounding area, and would give everything I have to see it do well, but I can say that I really don’t agree with the thesis that the area’s potential is ‘scarier’ than the barriers keeping it from reaching that potential. I WISH the encroachment of the tourism economy scared me.

    • Timothy Belcher

      Sam, Thanks for your comment. However, The Breaks and Elkhron City have a common boundary line and it is a 7 mile drive to the entrance not 20 to 30 minutes, in takes me about 10 minutes. It is a 30 minute drive form Pikeville but not form Elkhorn City. There are numerous trails in Elkhron City. The Pine Mountain Trail Head is in the Elkhron City limits. The breaks interstate park also has trails that leave the Pine Mountain Trail head. Read my other blog posts that highlight the Trails in Elkhron City. Also the Transamerica Bike Trail Runs through Elkhorn City with about 2000 bicylist a year.

  13. Willie Barrowman

    I moved from Elkhorn City after graduating from ECHS in 1967. Ever since I never miss a chance to return. In the last 10-15 years I have been bringing friends with me to enjoy the beauty and activities in the area. Kayaking, fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping and ATV riding. All of these people are stunned that they had never heard of the place and all the activities that are available.

    I agree with the sentiment that the Gatlinburg move should be approached and done in a slow and cautious manner but it should be done. Tourism can do wonders for the area. Now that the war on coal is killing the areas economy this could bring new life and pride back to the good hard working people of the area.

    I will be leading another group of people for our annual inner tube float and camping trip this mid June. We have a fun time floating from the camp at the upper end of Island Hole through Elkhorn coming out just above the railroad bridge. It is a kid friendly camp and float and all are invited. Contact me through this site for the exact date if you are interested in joining.

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