by Tim Thornton
People who work at New River Retreat talk about the Pulaski County business in almost spiritual terms.
More than 5,000 people last year stayed at the 3-year-old vacation site, which is in the Draper community at the edge of Claytor Lake.
“We don’t rent cabins,” said Ashlee VanMeter, New River’s head of marketing who also is the daughter of the owner, Debbie Gardner. “We create experiences. We’ve had guests tell us they felt like they were in an alternate universe. It’s like another world.”
One visitor didn’t want to leave New River because every night of his stay he dreamed of his long-dead grandmother who raised him. A woman who came to Draper to recover from cancer treatment now returns every year to celebrate her survival. Another woman poured her late husband’s ashes into the river outside the cabin they had rented because that’s where he’d been happiest.
Staffer Lisa Noell tells visitors that a stay at New River can change their lives. She speaks from experience. After renting a cabin in Draper, Noell closed her Virginia Beach insurance agency and called Gardner to announce she was coming to work at New River. Gardner hadn’t offered her a job, but Noell just knew she was supposed to be there.
But a lot more than positive vibes have gone into turning a family’s riverside cabin into a 30-unit vacation destination. New River also has been busy building a network of regional artists, musicians, farmers and entrepreneurs as well as connections with local and state officials.
Now Gardner’s group is using that network to revive Draper Mercantile, a general store that was the community’s center for decades. The 8,000-square-foot store offers an ice cream parlor; an indoor farmers’ market; bike, canoe and kayak rentals; yoga classes and tours of regional attractions. A concert series at the store will begin in September featuring musician and guitar maker Wayne Henderson, a National Heritage Award recipient.
Events this summer range from “Blues and Brews” to “Tea and Poetry.” A community celebration last Christmas drew more than 500 people long before the store’s renovation was finished.
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