A research team from Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business and College of Natural Resources has received a $266,000 grant from the National Park Service and Blue Ridge Heritage Inc. to help develop a sustainable tourism strategy for the Rocky Knob area of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The lead members of the team, which will collaborate with researchers from Clemson University, are Nancy McGehee, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management, and John McGee, assistant professor of forestry and geospatial extension specialist. McGehee’s expertise is in rural tourism development, particularly entrepreneurship and community capacity building. McGee is an expert in the use of global positioning systems, geographic information systems, and other geospatial products and services for government and business planning.

The project’s goal is to develop a strategy for the area that will attract new tourists and better engage the area’s regular visitors “so that they more fully experience the area and make a greater economic impact, while still sustaining what is unique and special about the region,” McGehee said.

“What tourism assets — facilities, attractions, and experiences — currently exist? How are they being used by visitors in a sustainable manner? What are visitors willing to travel for and spend money on? How can the assets be marketed, modified, or developed to attract new visitors, and who might these new visitors be? These are the key questions we seek to answer,” McGehee said.

Located near the intersection of the parkway with Virginia Route 8, the Rocky Knob recreation area covers more than 4,000 acres. The area includes Mabry Mill and Rock Castle Gorge, a visitors’ center, campground and cabins, and four hiking trails.

Work on the project, McGehee said, will be stakeholder-driven, particularly by Blue Ridge Heritage Inc., a recently formed nonprofit organization that seeks to boost economic development in Floyd and Patrick counties. The grant, obtained with the assistance of Congressman Rick Boucher, will provide support for the principal researchers’ work, their undergraduate and graduate assistants, as well as equipment, transportation, and other needs of the field-based research.

The 18-month project will be conducted in three phases, with work in each successive phase building on the findings of the previous stage, McGehee said. The work will include an inventory of tourism assets; a variety of surveys, including one on-site survey that will involve the use of GPS dataloggers; regular consultations and workshops with local community members and key community tourism experts; and the production of several reports, maps, and data tables that will be presented to Blue Ridge Heritage Inc., the National Park Service, and other project stakeholders.

The project, she said, will result in “specific recommendations and plans for tourism marketing with a sustainable economic development centerpiece that will enhance the quality of life in the region.”