UVA Wise students in Shankar Naskar’s Foundations of Entrepreneurship class traveled along a curvy but scenic road recently to hear businessman Billie Campbell describe the hard work it took to turn the innovative Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure company into a success.
The five classmates—Thomas Nauss, Kendra Stanley, Patrick Labong, Casey Taylor and Jonathan Bailey—admired the stunning mountain views on the crisp winter day as they exited the van. The warm visitor’s center, the product of a strong public-private partnership between government and business, welcomed them as they settled in to learn more about the Buchanan County-based company and to ponder ways to contribute to the economic development efforts underway at Southern Gap and Buchanan County.
Campbell and co-owner Patrick Owens purchased 35 acres smack in the middle of the 3,500-acre site on former reclaimed surface mine land. Buchanan County, an innovative county when it comes to economic diversification, sold the 35 acres to Campbell and Owens. The visitor’s center serves as a hub for the entire site, and Campbell likes it that way.Campbell has built cabins, created a campground, and has organized special events related to ATV trails. A second massive gathering, called UTV Takeover 2K20, is one of four sites in the nation and the only site east of the Mississippi. It’s set for April 29-May 3. Organizers are also hosting a Virginia Cross Country Series Motocross race in June, one of eight sites in the state. Capitalizing on the draw of a massive elk herd that was reintroduced to the region several years ago, Southern Gap is enjoying hard earned success.
A gift shop in the visitor’s center allows local residents to craft wares that were previously hard to bring to market. Local residents have started guide services for the 200 miles of linked ATV trails and for guided wildlife viewing, and some have opened beds and breakfasts to serve vacationing visitors.
“We’ve tried to become a hub for this,” Campbell explained. “We need to increase non-resident visitors to the region. The non-resident visitors spend about $47 per person each day, and that is injecting a lot of money into the economy.”
Winding roads are not always friendly to visitors, but those who enjoy adventure do not let a highway system keep them away from what the region offers in outdoor activities. The site is located next to the future Route 460 corridor, which is expected to improve access. Southern Gap is a true destination spot.
“It’s been successful,” Campbell said. “We are still growing.”
Visitors have come to Southern Gap from 49 states and six countries.
“They don’t want to be in a big tourist attraction,” he said. “We have something special to offer in Southwest Virginia.”
Campbell offered some advice to the UVA Wise students interested in building their own businesses. He said financing is a challenge but is not impossible. Getting local investment is better for long term success, and building strong partnerships is vital, he added.
The would-be entrepreneurs are learning to take an idea and make it real with hard work, innovation, and a healthy dose of good business sense.
They thanked Campbell for the tips, and then began their tour of Southern Gap. They walked through one of the cabins and later enjoyed an exciting ride on an ATV, including plenty of splashing mud, hilly terrain, rough paths, and a distant view of land where the elk roam. The students left with plenty of ideas.
Student Patrick Labong, a Virginia Beach resident, was impressed with the sheer beauty of the surrounding mountains. He wanted to stay longer to learn more about Southern Gap, and he enjoyed the cabins, the scenic acreage, and the excellent amenities.
“The trip to Southern Gap was such a blast,” Labong said. “Everyone was so welcoming. I learned that although starting a business might look easy, in fact, it can be hard. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome to make it profitable.”
Professor Naskar said the visit would fuel bright ideas from the students as they consider business plans and case studies.
“It was a wonderful field trip,” he said.