Meet Virginia's 37th State Park

Sep 27, 2016

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (r) joins Tom Clarke, head of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, and Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Bell and others at the September 24th ceremony.
Credit Jessie Knadler

On Saturday, Natural Bridge became the 37th Virginia State Park.  The ceremony followed a journey involving a tourist attraction under disrepair, troubled finances, and a place deep in Virginia's history.  WMRA's Jessie Knadler was at the ceremony and has this report.

Crowds of people gathered at the 215-foot high limestone arch in Rockbridge County on Saturday to celebrate the site’s official transition to a State Park.

Governor Terry McAuliffe was on hand to mark the occasion.

GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE:  I want to formally declare that Natural Bridge is now Virginia’s 37th State Park [applause]

Affiliation with the Park Service is expected to increase visitation while forever protecting the geological formation and its 1500 surrounding acres from development.

The celebration concludes a tense couple of years for healthcare executive Tom Clarke, who spearheaded the project.

TOM CLARKE: You think about Thomas Jefferson. He wrote in 1815 his great concern was that the Natural Bridge would be defaced and we wouldn’t have access to the public. Really today, we’re fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s dream. It seemed like a simple task. How in the world today would we allow Natural Bridge to go to the auction block to irreversibly be changed?

In 2014, Clarke worked out a complex deal that enabled his nonprofit company, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (or VCLF), to buy the then privately owned attraction using a $9.1 million loan from Virginia Resources Authority. Once the loan was to be paid off in 10 years, the VCLF would donate the Natural Bridge to the Commonwealth for use as a state park.

CLARKE: We really didn’t know a lot. We sort of took the risk naively. I’ve been asked many times, Tom, you defaulted on this loan.  Did you do your due diligence you needed? My response is always, Oh my goodness, no. If we’d done all the due diligence we never would have jumped into the deal.

JENNIFER BELL: The project was just so much bigger than we even imagined.

Jennifer Bell is the COO of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund and part of the management team that made the deal happen. The hotel was in terrible repair. Visitation was way down. A construction company filed a lien against the hotel. State officials stepped in after the VCLF were unable to make loan payments to the State. Jennifer wondered if the VCLF was in over its head. 

BELL: Yes, probably the first two years we were doing this, I thought that every morning. Since that time, working with the folks at DCR [the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation] to make the State Park happen, it’s been on an upward trend. This is great day.

On September 13, the Virginia Resources Authority finally approved a 10-year extension on the $9.1 million loan. The VCLF now has 20 years to pay it off, cutting annual loan payments down to almost half.

Under a unique agreement, the VCLF will continue to own the property until the debt is paid but the Park will be managed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Here’s DCR Director Clyde Cristman speaking at the event.

CLYDE CRISTMAN:  I gotta tell you, Governor, this is the riskiest thing we’ve ever done…operating a State Park on property we don’t own.

The DCR is much better equipped to manage the park than the VCLF. More experience, better marketing infrastructure. Ticket prices were slashed from $20 to $8 per adult

CRISTMAN:  You pull of the Interstate with a family of four and found out it was going to cost you 80 bucks to get in here, a lot of people got back in their car and went somewhere else.

Annual revenue is expected to grow from $2.3 million in 2017 to $3.1 million in 2021. More visitors to the area are expected to pump $4.5 million into Rockbridge County’s economy.

One attraction that isn’t going anywhere is the 89-year old “Drama of Creation,” a Biblical-themed outdoor sound and light show. Because of the separation of church and state, it can’t be shown during business hours, but remains popular so will be shown after hours for donations, courtesy of the VCLF.