By Barbara Musumarra
In West Virginia’s rural Calhoun County, which boasts some of the darkest skies across the eastern United States, a proposed starpark will allow professional and amateur astronomers to study the night sky with minimal light pollution.
Although locals have long appreciated the unobstructed views provided by the Calhoun County Park’s mountain vantage point, the park is relatively unknown to professional stargazers. When the Appalachian Regional Commission provided funding for the University of Knoxville in 2010 to help five underdeveloped counties, locals began to evaluate how they could use the park to encourage tourism. University researchers collected 300 survey responses from amateur astronomers reflecting interest in the endeavor.
Many gathered at the proposed starpark site in late September to evaluate the potential of upgrading the park to meet requirements for the International Dark Sky Association’s gold rating. Planned improvements include installing restrooms and electric power, which is necessary for professional, high-powered telescopes.
“Job creation is a goal of the project,” states Dr. Tim Ezzell, lead researcher for the initiative and director of the Community Partnership Center at the University of Knoxville. Plans to include community members in local workforce development programs are in the works.
“It’s a fascinating opportunity for a really poor rural county off the beaten path,” says Calhoun County official Bob Weaver. Over the years, Weaver has observed astronomers filtering in by the thousands, a trend he hopes will continue to bolster the community’s tourism.