Tourist train may roll in Tazewell

By Destiny Brandon
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A tourist train soon could be chugging its way through historic and scenic Tazewell County and across the state line to Bramwell, W.Va.

During its recently concluded session, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to create a Tourist Train Development Authority to pursue the project.

The nine-member authority would have representatives from the governing bodies of Tazewell County and the towns of Bluefield and Pocahontas; four Tazewell County citizens; and two legislators.

The new agency would have the power to enter contracts, borrow money, accept contributions and grants, and work with private and governmental entities in both Virginia and West Virginia in developing a tourist train. The plan is to work with Mercer County, W.Va., to seek funding for the project.

Tom Childress, a member of the Tazewell County Tourism Committee, has been involved with the tourist train idea since its inception many years ago. He said the train could have a positive economic influence on southwestern Virginia.

“We need some kind of economic stimulus,” Childress said.

He noted that in its heyday, Pocahontas was a thriving coal mining community and headquarters of coal companies. But now, Childress said, the “coal business is gone.” In the 2010 census, Pocahontas’ population was a mere 389. (It was 441 a decade earlier.)

“Our only future is our past,” Childress said.

He said a lot of history involving Pocahontas and Bramwell would appeal to tourists.

“We’re on the National Register of Historical Places, and the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine is a national historic landmark,” Childress said.

“This tourist train would run from Pocahontas across state lines to Bramwell, W.Va.. And Bramwell is the home of the original coal operators – the entrepreneurs who developed the mines and made the money. There are a number of mansions down there that are well-preserved, and it’s called the ‘millionaires’ town.’

“We could retell the story of coal in regard to the industrial development of the United States.”

Virginia actually had a Tourist Train Development Authority in the past. But it was eliminated when Gov. Bob McDonnell took office and urged legislators to remove various dormant state board and commissions.

The Tourist Train Development Authority would be re-created by Senate Bill 819, which was proposed this legislative session by Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell. The bill was approved by a vote of 35-5 in the Senate and 59-38 in the House.

McDonnell still must sign the bill for it to become law.

If McDonnell is “on board,” the development authority’s nine members could be appointed as earlier as July. The governor would appoint one member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, one member of the Bluefield Town Council, one member of the Pocahontas Town Council and four citizens who aren’t affiliated with any governmental body.

The authority’s governing board also would include Delegate James “Will” Morefield, R-North Tazewell, and Sen. Puckett. They represent Tazewell County in the General Assembly. Both supported SB 819.

Members of the board will receive no compensation. But they will hire an executive director who will help make the tourist train a reality.

Similar signs of support have taken shape across the state line in West Virginia. A nonprofit group called the Bluestone Junction Tourist Train Inc. has been formed in Bramwell and has backing from the West Virginia Legislature.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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