The distinct limestone arch known as the Natural Bridge became Virginia’s newest State Park over the weekend. The celebration concludes a tense couple of years for the conservation nonprofit that battled disrepair and default to make it happen.
More than a thousand people gathered at the iconic Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County to celebrate the site’s official transition to a State Park. Even Governor Terry McAuliffe was on hand to mark the occasion.
The 215-foot high limestone arch is the kind of singular attraction that seems like it should have been under the purview of the state all along. But it’s always been privately owned, going back to the days of Thomas Jefferson, who bought it from King George III for 20 shillings in 1774.
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That had always been an issue for Roanoke-based healthcare executive and conservationist, Tom Clarke.
"(Jefferson) wrote in 1815 his great concern was that the Natural Bridge would be defaced and we wouldn’t have access to the public," said Clarke during a speech at the ceremony. "Really today, we’re fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s dream."
In 2014, when Clarke learned the nearly 1,600 acre park --- including the arch, hotel and caverns --- was going up for sale, he was concerned it would be auctioned off and sold in chunks. So he worked out a complex deal that allowed a nonprofit he formed to take ownership of the site, using a $9 million loan from a state program that provides financing for community projects.
"The project was just so much bigger than we even imagined," said Jennifer Bell, Tom Clarke’s COO and top advisor.
The idea was they could fix up the park, potentially make it profitable, then donate it to the state. It was a bumpy transition. To save money, they slashed the marketing budget, but that dropped visitation. They missed loan payments. Bell wondered if they were in over their heads.
"Probably the first two years we were doing this, I thought that every morning. Since that time, working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to make the State Park happen, it’s been on an upward trend. This is a great day," said Bell.
Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation stepped in. They were able to work out an unusual agreement to help manage the park and pay down the debt. It was a risky move -- allowing a public park to operate on private land -- but the only way forward, says Clyde Cristman, Director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
"During the General Assembly, it was very contentious," Cristman said. "Fortunately, at the end of the day, calmer heads prevailed and if we just stuck to it we could make this day happen."
Now, the state agency will collect admissions and gift shop revenues, while Clarke’s nonprofit retains ownership of the hotel. Proceeds will go toward paying down the debt. And what does the State get out of this deal?
Christman says preservation of a distinct piece of Virginia.
"I walked down here this morning as we were getting ready for this and I looked up at the bridge and I got the most incredible feeling come over, knowing our efforts to preserve this in perpetuity," Cristman said. "And to think this had literally been divided into 30 lots, there could have been condos, there were plans for a golf course. It’s not gonna happen. We’ve preserved 1,500 acres, not to mention the iconic Natural Bridge."
Virginians get a deal too. Tickets that were once $20 a person, are now just $8.