... let's ask Jerry. Did Interstate 77 remove enough traffic from US 52 to make tourism, the latest "holy Grail" of prosperity, a virtual impossibility in Bland? (link)Interesting question. Before I-77 opened (essentially when Big Walker Mountain Tunnel was completed in 1972), US 52 was the main artery running from Bluefield, WV through Bland County to Wytheville and beyond. As was the case in days prior (revisit Route 66 bygone days and the history of The National Road), tourists wending their way down US 52 would frequently make a stop at Big Walker Lookout, a major (by any regional standard) scenic attraction in the county. Motels, tourist cabins, restaurants, zoos, parks, and an array of attractions brought prosperity to out-of-the-way parts of the country in the Golden Age of Automobiling. And with Bland County being sandwiched between Big Walker Mountain and Brushy Mountain, few areas of the country were more out-of-the-way.
When I-77 opened, traffic patterns changed dramatically. Big Walker Lookout for years has struggled to stay afloat and many of the roadside attractions, restaurants, and motels closed. But it's hard to argue that either the hotel business or the restaurant business suffered because fewer people travel US 52. The two Wytheville exits off the interstate are teeming with eateries and chain hotels, as are other exits further south. For every tourist business that has closed over the years, there is along the route of I-77 a Holiday Inn Express, a Bob Evans, and in Bland County, an Indian Village that may or may not be prospering.
The bigger question is: Has I-77 brought prosperity to Bland County, Virginia or have we just been trading dollars (US 52 businesses close and I-77 businesses open)? As far as tourism itself goes, I am unable to find any quantifiable difference between then and now. The Appalachian Trail has more visitors but I've found no study - in my exhaustive efforts - that show hikers to be spending any appreciable cash in Bland. They hike into the county; they hike out of the county. The five I-77 exits in Bland feature a total of three gas stations, one Dairy Queen and one Subway (and a mom-and-pop restaurant that had closed and recently reopened). Other than that, there has been no development along the highway - in 34 years. If the interstate is supposed to be some tourist mecca, it ain't happening here.
By the same token, there are four small industrial parks located not far off the interstate within the county. It's fair to say that the four are situated where they are in part because of their close proximity to I-77. In that regard, the interstate has proven to be a distinct advantage.
Has Bland county prospered as a result? Compared to the rest of Southwest Virginia, unemployment is less a problem (Smyth!) and unlike Tazewell and Giles Counties, Bland is not losing population.
But by every standard of measurement, the demographics in Bland County, Virginia lag woefully behind the rest of the state, whether one measures household income, economic growth, housing, or education (link).
So, in answer to Alton's question, did I-77 eliminate or hinder the development of tourism in Bland County? Probably. More important to me, did the construction of I-77 in itself raise the standard of living in Bland County? Not yet. 34 years and counting.