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Park on the Verge of a New Frontier E-mail
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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Park on the Verge of a New Frontier

4/3/2007

Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)

By Cody Lowe

Apr. 3  During a visit to Virginia's Explore Park last week, children getting a lesson on the life and contributions of the lowly earthworm were completely unaware of the possibly dramatic changes looming for the park as it prepares to open for the season.

Sometime during the next year, developer Larry Vander Maten will decide whether he wants to take over operation of the park and try to transform it into something it has never been in its 20-year history -- a profit-making family vacation destination.

Debbie Pitts, the park's executive director, is pretty sure most of this year's visitors will be as oblivious to that potential change as last week's schoolchildren were.

The park's official opening on Wednesday will be a month earlier than normal -- a move intended to draw in more parkway visitors and school groups -- but the experience will be much the same as it has been for several years.

A dozen or so full-time interpreters will be out in costume as usual, living in a 17th century Totero Indian village, building an 18th century fort, teaching at a 19th century school.

School groups will come for field trips and year-round educational activities, such as the earthworm experience. Hikers, mountain bikers, picnickers, nature-watchers all will be welcomed as usual. A mix of special events will be scattered through the year.

Thousands will make the short hop from the Blue Ridge Parkway's milepost 115 to the National Park Service's visitor center in the park to get information about the Roanoke Valley.

Behind the scenes, however, some things aren't exactly routine.

The biggest question about the park's future will be answered sometime in the next 14 months, when Vander Maten is required to announce whether he will exercise his option on a 50-year lease of the park.

"We're going to continue to operate the park for the next fiscal year," Pitts said. "He has to declare his intentions by June 8, 2008, right at the end of the fiscal year, so the timing is good.

"There will certainly be a transition period if he says, 'Yes, we're going to move forward.' That will be a whole new element of work, to transition to Virginia Living Histories," Vander Maten's company, Pitts said.

"But we're going to continue to do what we're doing, in a quality fashion, for the people we serve.

"And just in case he chooses not to activate his lease, we will be in a strong position to move forward," Pitts said.

Vander Maten has spent the last two years trying to figure out whether it's going to be feasible to create an overnight family vacation destination resort on the 1,100-acre site. The Florida-based entrepreneur was given three years to do that under an agreement with the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority, the quasi-governmental agency that owns the park property.

In recent years, the park has been operated by Roanoke County, which paid the lion's share of its operating costs, as much as $500,000 a year. It also paid Pitts' salary on top of that.

The county has been cutting back its financial contribution since a formal operating agreement ended in July 2006, and for the coming fiscal year the state of Virginia will provide $300,000 of the park's $760,000 budget. The county is expected to add $200,000, with the rest coming from the River Foundation, grants and park-generated revenue such as entrance fees.

Some of those close to Vander Maten say he's already spent at least half a million dollars planning for a project in which he would be obliged to invest at least $20 million. He has said he and other investors will probably spend several times that amount.

Last week, Bedford County's board of supervisors gave its approval to a rezoning of the 400 acres of the park in its jurisdiction so that it matches regulations adopted by Roanoke County a year ago.

The new rules allow a variety of commercial activities, including retail spaces up to 50,000 square feet, a marina, hotels, restaurants and gas stations.

Pitts, who said she sees Vander Maten regularly, noted that how he fulfills his state-mandated mission for historical and environmental education is still up in the air. "There may be lots of ways to look at how people learn," Pitts said.

As the deadline for Vander Maten's decision gets closer, expectations that he will go ahead with a major project seem to be firming up.

"A lot of the things that were having to fall into place, are falling into place," said Vinton District Supervisor Mike Altizer, who represents the area that includes the Roanoke County portion of the park.

Catawba District Supervisor Butch Church, who has been a vocal critic of the county's continued financial contributions to the park, said, "I really do want that place to be a tremendous success."

He understands the county is compelled to continue to give money to the operation this year. But, he said, "I think the tolerance level of citizens is being stretched, and I can't blame them."

Dale Wilkinson, a Roanoke Valley developer who introduced Vander Maten to Explore and is working with him, said progress continues but nothing is definite yet.

While the Blue Ridge Parkway has approved an agreement in principle on access, the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority, which owns the entrance drive to Explore over an old landfill, has not.

"That could bring the whole thing to a grinding halt," Wilkinson said.

Nevertheless, "We're proceeding at full speed," he said, studying what sort of attractions the park could sustain to make it an overnight destination.

"The site has many advantages -- river views, river frontage, mountain views, it's off the parkway. It has many, many unique features. But it has challenges as well. We're trying to see whether we can offer a product the market wants on that site."
 
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