Big Stone Gap - Homegrown Tools

Big Stone Gap, VA

Updated: 2022

This town’s choice to embrace ecotourism and to support local entrepreneurs is transforming the local economy and providing residents with a sense of accomplishment and independence from the control of industry outsiders.

Median Household Income2020$39,919
Poverty Rate 202030.1%
Proximity to Urban Center 137 miles to Knoxville, Tenn.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 30 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1998-2007
Municipal Budget proposed FY20225.9 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
View Complete Case StudyUpdated: Big Stone Gap, 2022

Big Stone Gap, located in Wise County in the Cumberland Mountains, is a town blessed with natural resources and scenic beauty. Over the last 20 years, however, the declining coal and textile industries have left hundreds of local residents without work or income. In response, local officials have locked arms with Virginia Cooperative Extension and several regional organizations to spearhead an ecotourism strategy. By supporting the growth of small business entrepreneurs to serve the ecotourism industry, the town has revitalized its economy and created new job opportunities for residents.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Supporting entrepreneurs is a long-term and transformative economic development strategy. Big Stone Gap was riddled with high unemployment and a declining economy. For decades, the town had relied on outsiders, such as the coal company or textile plant, to provide jobs. When these industries pulled out of town, Big Stone Gap looked at itself and what it had to offer, and it decided to build a new economic underpinning based on its local assets and opportunities. “We had to help people think about economic development in a new way,” Geneva O’Quinn said. Entrepreneurship is all about identifying opportunities and figuring out ways to create value for a customer. In Big Stone Gap, the ecotourism assets around town were brimming with opportunity. Over a period of six years, entrepreneurs harvested these opportunities, and slowly but surely, new small businesses started appearing in town – new businesses with local ownership and local roots. In terms of its long-term prospects, Big Stone Gap is well under way in transforming its economy to one driven by local assets and leaders, one much less vulnerable to major economic shocks from circumstances outside of its control.


Entrepreneurs need a flexible and multi-faceted support network. Entrepreneurs have unique needs. A single organization in a small town will never be able to support the broad range of needs that entrepreneurs face on a daily basis. Creating a network of services, however informal, is a viable strategy for supporting the needs of local entrepreneurs. In Big Stone Gap, the town linked entrepreneurs to the specific expertise of HATA, the local community college, the small business development center and the community development lending entity.