McDowell County’s Jennifer Justice discusses her selection to the ARC’s Fellowship Program

By Matthew Young, RealWV

“In McDowell County, if nothing else, we are resilient. We have suffered through multiple floods, and we just keep coming out fighting – we’re still hanging on. We need you to come here and see what wonderful people we are. When people come here, they keep coming back.”

That’s what Jennifer Justice, executive director of the McDowell County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) told RealWV on Tuesday. Justice, who also serves as secretary of the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce, was one of five West Virginians named by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to the 2023-2024 class of Appalachian Leadership Institute Fellows. 

“McDowell County has a lot of natural resources that we still have yet to tap into,” Justice said. “I think if we start tapping into them for tourism purposes, that will help make our tourism programs a lot more successful than they are today.”

“The ARC Fellowship, they give you tools to help figure out how to fund and coordinate different projects,” Justice added. 

Justice is one of 40 individuals from the Appalachian Region recently named to the new class of Fellows. Joining Justice in the program are Morgantown’s Summer Hartley, Jennifer Light of Ridgeley, Huntington’s Kalyn Obiozor-Dorey, and Jona Rinard of Williamstown. Together, the five Mountaineers make West Virginia the most represented state in the 2023-2024 class. 

The program consists of six leadership and economic development training sessions over a nine month period. The sessions are scheduled at different locations throughout the 13-state Appalachian Region. 

“I will be going to South Carolina; Tupelo, Mississippi; Rome, Georgia; Pennsylvania; and Kentucky,” Justice noted. “The first class will take place in Beckley, at Adventures on the Gorge. Everybody who has been accepted into the Fellowship will meet there for our first session. I believe Gayle Manchin will be there as well.”

Manchin, along with Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, serve as co-chairs of the ARC. As explained on the ARC’s website, the training sessions are designed to focus on the commission’s “strategic investment priorities,” the aim of which is to “strengthen economic and community growth in Appalachia.”

“This is designed to help us with economic development and locate our community assets,” Justice said. “It’s designed as a tool for us, and it’s completely free to all of the people who participate.”

According to Justice, the support extends beyond the initial nine-month training period. Once the program has been completed, each of the 40 Fellows will become part of the Appalachian Leadership Institute Alumni Network. 

“When they announced that we were selected, I received several emails from West Virginia alumni introducing themselves,” Justice said. “Some of them gave us little tidbits about things that we can expect. It was really nice to be able to talk to somebody who has been there to give us a little perspective.”

With the ARC’s emphasis on economic development in Appalachia, combined with West Virginia’s focus on bolstering tourism within the state, Justice says the Fellowship will be highly beneficial to her in her role as CVB director.

“People don’t realize that tourism jobs are not just working at a resort, or working at a restaurant,” Justice explained. “I have lodge owners asking me if we have a housekeeping company in McDowell County, or do we have someone who works on heat pumps because a pump in a rental unit is down.”

“Even mechanics,” Justice added. “I’ve had tourists stop in and say, ‘Hey, I blew a tire on my trailer. Where can I get it fixed?’ There are so many aspects that people don’t associate with tourism.”

Of all the skills Justice hopes to learn through the Fellowship, there is one in particular that she believes will be most helpful to McDowell County. 

“I’m really excited to learn how to write public grants,” Justice said, “To learn how to pay for projects, and figure out how to plan the steps that I need to take to start a project.”

“To me, when someone is in our county and they’re trying to do good things, they’re part of a bigger family,” Justice added. “We’re all like family here.”

ABOUT JENNIFER JUSTICE:

Jennifer Justice is the Executive Director of the McDowell County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), Secretary of the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce and serves on the board of the Friends of the Tug Fork River. Jennifer’s job is to promote tourism for McDowell County, assist in advertising local businesses and events, and showcasing all that McDowell County has to offer. Jennifer has lived in McDowell County most of her life. Jennifer has a Regents bachelor’s degree from Bluefield State College. Jennifer is married to Doug, has two daughters, Andrea, and Emilea and three grandchildren, Cambree, Eli and Addisyn.

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