CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With plenty of choices of where to live, work and play, an environmental disaster like last month's Elk River chemical leak could have a severely negative impact on a city's reputation and thus its economy. Why would anyone choose to visit if they're unsure about the water?
That is a challenge the city of Charleston must now take on. How to attract visitors and new residents after the Jan. 9 chemical leak that left 300,000 people without potable water?
"Obviously, we are the Chemical Valley and a lot of strides, I think have been made by the chemical industry," said Alisa Bailey, president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Sadly, this incident that affected the water supply is a wallop of an impact."
Last month, Bailey reported to CVB board members financial losses from just 12 businesses surveyed during the "do not use" advisory totaled $1 million. A preliminary investigation by the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research projected an economic impact of $61 million for businesses in the nine affected counties.
Charleston competes for visitors and tourism dollars with cities like Nashville and Lexington. Bailey said the city is "in a really good place" with renovations to the Civic Center underway and new hotels being built, but a clean environment is key to sustaining a healthy tourism economy.
"We really can't have people remember, 'Oh yeah, that's the place where people are drinking bottled water,'" she said.
Only after there are definitive statements regarding the water quality, and the public trusts those messages, can the CVB really start to market Charleston again, Bailey said.
"We can't sell [the city] until it's clean and everybody believes it's clean," she said. "It's just the reality, frankly."
The same could be said of those looking to relocate to Charleston for work. Jeff James, of Create WV -- an organization focused on developing an "innovation economy" in the Mountain State -- said those in career fields such as art, technology and design can choose to live anywhere. "Quality of place" factors are important to people when choosing where to live.
"There are cities and regions of the country that are taking the environment seriously as an asset, and we're clearly not, from a leadership perspective," James said. "We're not embracing that the environment and surroundings are every bit as attractive as taxes."
The leak's impact on the region's economy is a "natural result of not looking more holistically at economic development," James said.
"It's not that anybody needs to be anti-coal or anti-chemical," James said. "We have to have a much more diverse economy so that any one industry like that doesn't have too much influence. If we're too scared to hold industry accountable, it's not going to get better."
Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said clean water is "fundamental."
"People talk about ... brain drain," Boettner said. "If we're wanting to attract people here and keep people here it makes it very difficult if we can't even provide safe water."
Herb Malone, president and CEO of Alabama Gulf Shores Convention and Visitors Bureau, dealt with similar issues after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill contaminated the Gulf Coast in 2010. Bailey reached out to Malone for advice on how to handle the chemical spill in the Kanawha Valley.
The spill happened in April, but the well wasn't capped until mid-August, severely affecting the tourism industry's peak season.
"The oil spill was an unknown, just like I'm sure the chemical spill is like something you've never experienced," Malone said. "It puts high level of stress on citizenry and government to not know what you're dealing with."
Those frustrations could be exacerbated by conflicting reports from government officials, outside experts and so-called experts, Malone said.