Sunday, February 24, 2013
Explore what still goes on at the park
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Explore Park is a 1,050-acre facility in Roanoke and Bedford counties adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway with two miles of Roanoke River frontage. The park has 20buildings, a living history museum, ninemiles of mountain bike trails, hiking trails, the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and access to the Roanoke River for fishing and boating.
This is a tremendous asset for the residents and tourists of our region and worthy of recognition for the efforts of those with the vision and the compassion to create it.
Founded in 1985 by a group of Roanoke's more innovative thinkers, the concept was to deliver a high-quality destination comparable to the experiences of Williamsburg, Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens. The vision for Explore Park was an ambitious plan for a community like the Roanoke Valley, but one befitting the leaders of this period who seemed to have always pushed to move this valley forward. Many of these leaders have led the way on projects that include renovating the Hotel Roanoke, Valley View Mall, The Taubman Museum of Art and Center in the Square, to name just a few. And what remains true about many of the people behind some of our most ambitious pursuits is that they believe wholeheartedly in the valley.
When fully operational, Explore brought people to hotel rooms, shops and gas stations - activity that supported local jobs. Since its inception, the economic impact of Explore on our community is in excess of $16million. Our goal is to fully restore Explore Park's venues and to increase leisure opportunities to enhance the Virginia Blue Ridge experience for residents and visitors.
Virginia's Explore Park operated as an outdoor living history museum and recreation park from 1994 to 2007, when it was partially closed in anticipation of a lease agreement with developer Larry Vander Maten. The developer proposed creating an eco-sensitive family-oriented vacation destination at Explore Park. In June 2010, Vander Maten concluded that the financial markets were not going to transition in time for him to take advantage of the lease arrangements negotiated with the Explore Park board of directors.
The Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority produced an alternate plan in December 2010 for the future of Virginia's Explore Park. This plan was created by a consortium of stakeholders, including professional planners from local governments and the National Park Service, recreation advocates and citizens.
The efforts had begun 18months prior to the end of the lease, thanks to VRFA Board Chairman Fred Anderson. The plan recommends development of a campground, cabins, a special event center, a bike skills park, an adventure park for children, a ropes/canopy tour challenge course, an amphitheater, and reopening of the living history villages and the existing facilities. In addition to venues, the board will seek to create new services such as outdoor recreation outfitters, programs, events, retail services and food services.
The VRFA is poised and ready to reinvent Virginia's Explore Park by creating a new way of doing business (also the result of the consortium). The goal is to create business opportunities for individuals, developers and businesses to utilize existing facilities or develop new venues while generating lease or percentage fee revenue to operate the park. The private sector's investments in the park must fit within an overall master plan that ensures a high-quality visitor experience that is authentic to the region and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The authority is motivated to make Explore Park a success and accepts the challenge to move it forward to serve the needs of residents and tourists and become an economic driver for the region. Speculation to the contrary, the board has made great strides in reinvigorating the park, and many of the efforts that have taken place have not been last-ditch efforts to save a failing institution, but calculated moves to pursue what is in the best interest of the park. The hard part for the board is for our fellow citizens to realize this project belongs to our valley.
We have been working for you:
n This year the park welcomed about 14,000 visitors from around the world, across the country and down the block, confirming that the park, while not fully operational, is having an economic impact and is certainly not closed. In addition, an estimated 2,000 people enjoyed events and outdoor venues this year at Explore.
n The History of the Parkway and the Settlement of the Roanoke Valley Exhibits have been opened for about 2,000 hours a year without interruption since 2007.
n Fifteen committed volunteers inspect the park daily, make repairs and maintain the existing trails on an ongoing basis for hikers, runners and cyclists and for the two major trail races: Explore Your Limits and Into the Darkness. More than 900 runners participated in these races this year.
n The major motion picture "Alone Yet Not Alone" was filmed at Explore Park in 2010. The park works actively with the Virginia Film Office to promote the park for film and advertising projects. The film's economic impact on our region was $3.7million.
n Local Civil War re-enactors, the 60thVirginia Infantry CompanyK, recently brought history to life with an interpretive event that raised money toward the Restore Explore initiative.
n Local musicians also supported the restoration by donating proceeds from two heritage blue grass concerts to the park.
n Explore Park was the host site for a cross-country invitational track meet for nine private schools from the region.
n A formal partnership with the Big Lick District Boy Scouts has created a win-win for both Explore Park and the Scouts by providing a local area for Scouting activities, camps and events and introduces Explore Park to potential Eagle Scouts; the park now has five active Eagle Scout improvement projects.
n The VRFA has entered into a lease option for the development of two communication towers that will provide long-term revenue and improve internal park communications, emergency services communications and coverage for local residents.
n The park just completed a Roanoke River improvement project. The new parking lot, kiosk, trail improvements and river access boat launch steps were made possible by donations from local businesses, organizations and Boy Scouts.
n Nine miles of International Mountain Biking Association sanctioned trails, a one mile hiking trail, picnic area, the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, Rutrough Point Roanoke River access area and the hospitality plaza are open to the public.
n Plans are underway to restore the 1850s Mount Union Church and the Taubman Welcome Center.
That is what is going on at Virginia's Explore Park. For more information and updates, visit our website at www.explorepark.org.
Together, we can restore Explore Park.