Natural Bridge is designated a state park
Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County has begun a new era.
The 215-foot rock arch, a National Historic Landmark, was designated Virginia’s 37th state park in September, a move that’s been almost three years in the making. The commonwealth, however, doesn’t own the landmark yet.
In 2014, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (VCLF) purchased privately held property that includes the Natural Bridge and its adjacent caverns and hotels using a $9.1 million loan from the Richmond-based Virginia Resources Authority (VRA). The intent of the complicated deal was to protect Natural Bridge until it could become a part of the state park system.
“It was important to us to see the land preserved in perpetuity,” says Tom Clarke, who heads VCLF and Kissito Inc., a Roanoke-based charity that works in the areas of health, aging, nutrition and natural resources.
He expected to donate Natural Bridge to the park system by the end of last year, but VCLF defaulted on the 10-year loan. The loan now has been extended by a decade. Once it is paid off, VCLF will give Natural Bridge to the commonwealth.
The state will use a portion of its revenue from Natural Bridge admissions and gift-shop and food sales to help pay off part of the loan, with VCLF responsible for the rest. The loan balance was $6.9 million as of October, according to Shawn B. Crumlish, VRA’s director of financial services.
Natural Bridge’s caverns have been donated to the American Conservation Legacy Fund Inc., but VCLF plans to keep the hotel. Lionberger Construction of Roanoke sued VCLF after not being paid for $1.1 million in renovations at the hotel. Clarke says that amount will be paid off by the end of the year.
State park designation is intended to make the landmark more accessible while helping to boost visitation and revenue. The commonwealth has slashed admission prices by roughly half, to $8 for adults and $6 for children.
Virginia State Parks Director Craig Seaver says the state agency has begun marketing the park while revamping its gift shop and performing minor maintenance on the site. The state also has started work on a park master plan, which should be finalized in the next year, he says.
The commonwealth estimates park attendance will be 155,808 and revenues will be $2.5 million during fiscal year 2017, which ends June 30.
Those estimates don’t factor in attendance and revenue before September, when the state took over the site.
Visitation is expected to increase 2 percent annually after this fiscal year, but that’s a conservative estimate, Seaver says. He notes that Natural Tunnel in Scott County averages 224,000 in annual attendance. As of August, overall attendance at Virginia state parks was up 12 percent from the previous year.
“I think [Natural Bridge] will be enjoyed by many generations to come versus what could have been,” Seaver says. “We’re excited about it.”