Bell County Adventure Tourism Director Jon Grace is a young professional that has been making an impact on the local level — dedicating his life to the betterment of the community and working hard to better serve the people of Bell County.
Grace, 28, was born in Pineville and has lived in Middlesboro nearly all his life. He graduated from Middlesboro High School in 2000, and later attended Southeast Community College.
Grace then furthered his education at Lincoln Memorial University, and went on to graduate from the University of Kentucky in 2005 with a degree in Decision Science/Information Systems.
The 28-year-old local professional currently serves as Adventure Tourism Director in Bell County, and is founder of the Holler Crawlers ATV Club.
Grace understands that young professionals today must take initiatives and run the elevated risk of failure before they can favorably impact the world around them. In a short time, he has exhibited this type of ambition in his unselfish actions and dedication to community involvement — developing his vision and expressing tremendous character throughout the process.
The adventure tourism director said that his position is really a lot of very different jobs wrapped into one. Grace asserts that on any given day, he could be hammering in trail signs on the ATV park, picking up trash, designing brochures or signs, writing grants, or doing website updates.
“One misconception is that all I do revolves around ATV trails, which isn’t true,” said Grace, adding that he recently finished writing a grant proposal which would help improve most of the hiking trails within Pine Mountain State Park.
He commented that outdoor recreation of all types — including hiking, horseback riding, boating, fishing, hunting and of course trail riding — is highly important and can play a vital role in Bell County Adventure Tourism.
Grace simply wants Bell County to be a place where a family can come spend an entire week and do a different outdoor activity everyday.
He alleged that things are about at that point now, but tourism representatives “just have to develop it a little more and market it more.”
“One thing we have to do is make sure we have the businesses that facilitate this kind of tourism, because otherwise it has a hard time growing without it,” declared Grace.
According to Grace, however, the future of adventure tourism in Bell County is really exciting because of the sweeping potential.
“The past few years I have seen a lot of communities who have capitalized on this form of tourism, and honestly none of them have the potential that we do. But to realize that potential is the tough part. There are a lot of moving parts,” said Grace.
He said the keys to realizing Bell County’s full potential is community involvement, landowner cooperation, and support from community and state governments and their respective agencies.
“Individuals, business owners, entrepreneurs, civic clubs, and community leaders all need to get behind this project fully... If we can get support from the community, from investors, from landowners, and from county and state officials, there is no limit to the heights of adventure tourism in Bell County. We have the potential to be one of the best, if not the best outdoor recreation destination in the country. But it’s going to take a lot of hard work and a little luck for all the pieces to come together.”
Grace created Holler Crawlers in mid-2006. He had been a member of the Harlan County Ridge Runners for a few years, and thought it was terrific what the club was doing for the city of Evarts and for Harlan County.
“Their club had not only brought a small community together with a common interest, but they used their enthusiasm to help change the face of their county with adventure tourism. We are doing the same thing here. We have had growing pains, just as they did, but we are making some real strides with adventure tourism in Bell County.”
Grace said the key for a club like the Holler Crawlers to succeed is community involvement.
“It takes a village, or in this case, a county. We have survived and thrived thus far due to one thing — the passion and commitment of our members. And our future success will be based on the same thing.”
Grace believes the route to accomplishment for the Holler Crawlers ATV Club is drawing new community members in:
“We have so many folks in this area who enjoy off-roading and we really need more people to become involved and help take this club to another level. If we have the same people doing all the work all the time, it wears on you as a club. If we can draw new members, it breathes new life into the club. We just want the community to come to our rides and meetings, and see what we're about.”
Grace takes great pride in his community, and hopes that as adventure tourism grows in Bell County, more businesses to support tourists will come forth.
“One thing I want to see is for our community to be transformed in a positive way. We have several key issues that are holding Bell County back that we need to overcome in order for us to realize our potential. But again, it goes back to the impetus of individuals in the community. If we can harness a county-wide inner drive... then I think Bell County can and will become the place we envision,” he explained.
Although adventure tourism began as a hobby for Grace, he says that he loves his new position.
“I love figuring out ways to bring people from out of state and even out of country to our corner of the world and seeing their impression of the place. It gives you a real sense of pride on where you’re from,” he exclaimed.
Ten years from now, Grace hopes to be in Bell County still doing something tourism-related. He stated that he really enjoys the marketing aspect of it — finding the means and methods to capture someone’s attention and making them want to come to Bell County.
“I want to definitely be doing something that I feel makes a difference to our county, whatever that is. Whether it’s part of my actual job, or in some kind of volunteer capacity, I want to make sure I do my part to make this county a better place,” Grace said.
Apart from his responsibilities as tourism director, Grace recently graduated from Leadership Bell County and is involved with the local PRIDE organization.
He maintained that one of the biggest accomplishments on the Asher property at Mountain Drive is the amount of trash that the Holler Crawlers, in direct association with PRIDE, have removed:
“We’ve removed 13 tons officially, and I would dare to say two or three times that, if not more, unofficially. A lot of locals have told us that Mountain Drive went from a place where people loved to dump their trash to a beautiful place that is virtually free of trash... So PRIDE is something I am really glad to be involved with because it is a key component in helping clean up Bell County.”
The main focus of Grace, right now, is to unite the county’s efforts for overall improvement.
“We need to put aside differences and focus on what unites, which is being from Bell County and wanting the best for the people of our county,” he stated.
As for accomplishment, to Grace, it means not being easily satisfied:
“Even when you reach a predetermined goal, you should always find ways to make it better. When you have a passion for what you do, trying to accomplish something can become a life’s work because you’re always thinking of ways to improve.”
The adventure tourism director said that the goal now is to find a way to make Bell County the top destination for outdoor enthusiasts in the country.
“We are making some great progress. We have got several grants to help ease the financial burden of creating and maintaining the park. We have secured help from great groups like the Holler Crawlers — who give up their time to guide rides, hold charity events and pick up trash. We’ve drawn thousands and thousands of new faces into Bell County, and most have fallen in love with our corner of the world. We’ve garnered attention in national publications and on national television, and our name is starting to really get out there despite only being in the game for a few years. So we are definitely making progress in achieving that goal,” explained Grace.
Direction, ambition and dedication are desires that keep Grace motivated — and to him, in order to make a difference, you must always be driven.
“You have to keep working and plugging away, piece by piece, until you see your goal take shape. And once it takes shape, never be satisfied. Keep working to try to mold it into perfection. With the community’s help and support, we can become one of the top destinations for outdoor enthusiasts and grow through tourism in ways we didn’t think were possible before. It’s just going to take time, effort, and unyielding passion,” he concluded.
Adam Young is a Staff Writer for the Middlesboro Daily News. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.