Natural Bridge to join state park system
When Tom Clarke received a call asking if he wanted to buy a bridge, he thought it was a joke. “I was waiting for the punch line, but they really did have a bridge they wanted to sell,” Clarke, CEO of Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (VCLF) Inc., says with a laugh.
The bridge was Natural Bridge, a national historic landmark in Rockbridge County. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Natural Bridge towers 215 feet above Cedar Creek and is made up of 36,000 tons of limestone.
VCLF is the new owner of Natural Bridge, thanks to a donation by the previous owner, Angelo Puglisi, a real estate developer in the Washington, D.C.-area. Puglisi donated a 188-acre parcel that includes Natural Bridge to VCLF, a move that will allow him to use a tax credit. VCLF took out a $9.1 million loan for the rest of Puglisi’s Natural Bridge holdings.
Under the agreement, VCLF will transfer most of the property to the state park system once it pays off the loan, which it hopes to do by the end of next year through fundraising and income generated from the site. VCLF would retain ownership of the site’s 162-room hotel, cottages and caverns. The holdings VCLF acquired from Puglisi are valued at more than $40 million.
VCLF is part of Roanoke-based Kissito (where Clarke is president and CEO). Kissito is a nonprofit involved in health, aging, nutrition, natural resources and human development issues in the U.S. and abroad.
Clarke says VCLF would like to improve accessibility to Natural Bridge. The property will undergo a transformation to emphasize the history and ecology of the site while developing its outdoor recreation potential, according to a news release. VCLF plans to make up to $5 million in renovations to the complex, which would include a facelift to the hotel and building more than 15 miles of trails.
“We want it to be a little bit like a cruise ship,” Clarke says. “You know, you go on board and there’s enough to keep you busy every minute of the day.”