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A life of leisure

This is part five of an eight-part Sunday Gazette-Mail series focusing on the state of regional economies in West Virginia.

LEWISBURG — The Greenbrier Valley is a long way from Vegas.

And yet here is Danny Berg, zipping down the country roads on his Harley, pampered mastiff Moby in the sidecar. Wearing goggles.

Doesn’t quite blend in with the genteel old farmhouses, the open pastures, the shady groves of untouched trees. If you’re looking for “Almost Heaven,” this is it.

Danny Berg knows a good business opportunity when he sees one.

“I’m calling my property, ‘An American Destination,’” he says. The property in question is a 300-acre farm in Union. Berg, who made his fortune building custom houses in Las Vegas, left Sin City a year ago “looking for new places to develop.”

When he saw the Monroe County farm, he knew he had hit the jackpot. He plans to carve it into parcels, each one several acres, each one complete with a pastoral vacation home that city slickers will snap up faster than any hotcakes.

It’s happening all over this six-county area of West Virginia, this idyllic island in the megalopolis of the Eastern Seaboard, from the forests of Randolph County to the farm fields of Monroe. Farmers, sick of losing money, are selling out. Big land companies are quietly selling off acres of timberland. And developers are buying them and covering them with vacation homes at a dizzying rate.

Tourists and retirees are attracted to the farm-and-forest lifestyle here. But few natives actually pursue that lifestyle anymore. They’re much more likely to get jobs catering to the tourists.

A real, live farmer

Cattle still outnumber people in Greenbrier County, but barely and not for long. In 2002, West Virginia’s cattle herd was the puniest since 1877.

Greenbrier County is the cattle capital of the state, with Monroe County close behind and Pendleton County taking the No. 4 spot. The three counties accounted for one of every four cattle lost in West Virginia between 1997 and 2002.

“It’s kind of sad,” said Larry Echols, a 50-year-old Monroe County farmer. Just west of Lewisburg, for instance, “the valley’s just so wide, so beautiful, so nice. Now, there’s $400,000 to $500,000 houses everywhere.”

Echols owns 400 acres of his cattle operation, and leases the rest “from people

who want to live here,” but who don’t want to farm. Mostly, it’s aged farmers whose kids don’t want to take over. Sometimes, it’s people who bought vacation farms, who like the idea of having their very own farm getaway, but who need a real, live farmer to keep up the property.

Echols and his young bride started farming years ago “with nothing,” he said. They and their two children buy the cattle, breed them, feed them, birth them, nurse them when they’re sick — and probably don’t clear $50 apiece when they sell them.

“I’ve told my son Andrew, ‘The day you decide you don’t want to farm, let me know and I’ll slow down, hunt and fish, enjoy myself some,’” Echols said.

His daughter has already decided upon a different career. But even if neither child wants to make a living on the land, Echols said, “I don’t want them to sell the farms.”

15 minutes from Wal-Mart

Jane Scott rolled out of bed with pneumonia. But by 10 a.m., she’d driven 140 miles to Snowshoe Mountain Resort and back, shown a vacation house to prospective buyers, and returned with three offers in her pocket.

After that, “I’ve got to get back to a lady from Long Island who wanted information” about vacation property, the Greenbrier County real estate broker said. “We field half a dozen to a dozen calls a week from people wanting a second home or land.

“Everybody and their brother wants something on the [Greenbrier] River, or a historical house, or a farm.”

Scott moved to West Virginia 10 years ago. She started out renting vacation houses near the ski slopes at Snowshoe, in the wooded mountains of Pocahontas County. Now, with her office across the Greenbrier County line, she handles real estate in Greenbrier and Monroe counties, too.

The eastern mountain region accounts for one of every four vacation houses in the state, which has become the nation’s sixth-fastest growing state for second homes.

In Pocahontas County, 40 percent of all houses are vacation houses, according to the Census Bureau. The number of vacation houses has shot up 109 percent in 10 years.

In Pendleton County, one house in five is somebody’s vacation house. In Webster and Monroe, it’s 1 in 10.

Howard Neviser, a Realtor in Scott’s office, can print out a thick stack of houses and farms for sale in an eyeblink. Like this one: three bedrooms, three baths, four-car carport in a gated riverfront subdivision, $269,900.

“That house will probably last a minute on the market,” Neviser predicted. “It’s 15 minutes from Wal-Mart, but when you’re there, it’s like being way out in the country.”

Neviser isn’t too different from a lot of his clients. He and his wife moved to Greenbrier County from Washington, D.C., when they retired. Neviser just does the real-estate thing to stay busy.

“We can afford to live here comfortably, without having to work,” he said.

Government jobs, resort jobs

If the cost of living is low in West Virginia’s eastern mountains, it may be that many people who live and work there couldn’t afford it any other way:

s One in five people in the region live in poverty, according to the 2000 Census. In Monroe and Pendleton counties, where 60 percent and 40 percent of workers, respectively, commute to jobs outside the county (often to Virginia), poverty is less of a problem.

s Government is the biggest employer in the region, accounting for 21 percent of the work force. Government wages are consistently higher than those paid by private employers in the area; in Monroe County, almost 60 percent of the county’s private-sector employees work in jobs that pay, on average, less than it takes to keep a family of four out of poverty.

Private-sector wages are slightly better in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, largely because “leisure and hospitality” wages are higher thanks to two large resorts: Snowshoe Mountain and The Greenbrier. (In Randolph County, on the other hand, the average leisure/hospitality job pays less than it takes to keep a family of two out of poverty.)

s When people think of West Virginia’s eastern mountains, they might think of the placid cattle farms or the vast stretches of forest that have defined the region’s landscape for so long. But now, the people who live here are actually less likely to make their living from farms or forests than people elsewhere in the state.

But they’re more likely than their peers statewide to have jobs catering to tourists.

Danny Berg, the Las Vegas developer, says West Virginia’s eastern mountains are so attractive because they are so rural, so peaceful, so ... undeveloped.

But West Virginia’s farmland and forests are shrinking. From 1997 to 2002, the state lost farmland equal to the size of Taylor County. During the 1990s, an equivalent amount of forest disappeared.

Still, ask Berg if he thinks the eastern mountains could get too developed for their own good, and he simply looks incredulous. Then he laughs.

“In Las Vegas right now, if you’ve got an acre of land, and you put up a 5- or 6-foot block wall around it, and a gate on the front, that’s high-class,” he said.

“People just don’t know about West Virginia.”

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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