Natural Bridge Has a Savior, But Can He Pay the Bills?

Nov 23, 2015

Thousands of tourists visit Natural Bridge each year – it’s where Rockbridge County got its name. But the Park is in financial trouble after being purchased by a Roanoke-based healthcare executive last year. WMRA‘s Jessie Knadler heads out to Natural Bridge to learn more about what happens when a man with good intentions throws himself into an industry he knows little about.

The basement of the historic Natural Bridge Hotel isn’t where you’d expect to find corporate headquarters. It’s cold. There are not a lot of windows. Tables in a meeting room are shoved together to make one giant conference table, nearly all of it covered in neat stacks of paper, documents and maps.

TOM CLARKE: People say, where do you work? And I say, the Natural Bridge Hotel. What are you doing? And I say, Oh, well, I’m in an office in the basement next to the laundry room.

This is the space where Tom Clarke the new owner of the Natural Bridge Park and Historic Hotel, hunkers down and works the phones, trying to dig his way out of the park’s serious financial problems.  Among his most pressing concerns: He’s delinquent on a $9.1 million loan from the state he had intended to pay off by July 2016.

CLARKE:  We have bet the farm and I know some people may say, Yeah, and you’re going to lose it.

Tom Clarke is the founder and CEO of Roanoke-based Kissito Healthcare, a nonprofit provider of services to the elderly. He has no experience in the tourism or hospitality industries. But he’s big into conservation and sustainability. When he learned that the nearly 1,600 acre park featuring the bridge, hotel, visitor center and caverns was going up for sale last year, he was concerned the site would end up being auctioned off in chunks, forever destroying the state attraction.

What Clarke may lack in tourism chops, he makes up for in deal making. To save the bridge, he formed another non-profit, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, VCLF, and worked out a very complex deal that allowed him to take ownership of the entire site with a $9.1 million loan borrowed from the state. (The entire property was recently appraised for something like $37 million.) Once the loan is paid off, the entire property – excluding the historic hotel and caverns, which will remain with Clarke’s non profit – will be handed over to the state to be run as a park. The glitch: The place was in terrible repair.

CLARKE:   We realized there were going to be a lot of problems, I don’t think we did understand the magnitude of them. On the day we closed we had water treatment problems, both with the waste water treatment plant and the water facility. All of our boilers went out. The roof was leaking. We had large garbage cans on the third floor collecting water. It was certainly more than we expected to all happen at the same time.

Natural Bridge Park is unusual in that it owns all of the utilities on the site typically owned by municipalities. It owns its own antiquated sewage treatment plant, water system, and, shockingly, all of its own electric lines and transformers, which haven’t been updated since the 1950s. When this stuff breaks, you can’t call state employees to come fix them.

Clarke made the mistake of slashing the marketing budget – remember, his background is in healthcare -- thinking billboards on the side of the road were superfluous.

CLARKE:  I think we were more of the belief that we’ll use social media, we’ll be tweeting about it, we’ll be on Facebook. But when it comes to an attraction like this the billboards are very critical. We voluntarily gave up some of them. We lost the rest of them.

To dig his way out, Clarke has reduced hotel hours to weekends and holidays over the slow winter. He’s dumping more money into marketing. He’s in the process of trying to refinance the hotel. And, most significantly, he recently teamed up with a new “socially conscious, environmental conservation” lender – his words --  to help pay down the $9.1 million debt to the state on time. The VCLF said they will announce who this new lender is in the coming days.

CLARKE:  We were able to pay the first year’s debt service – it was $910,000 -- but this year we just had so many accumulated debts and issues we’ve only paid $175,000 of that but we do intend before the year’s out to, with outside funds, pay another $280,000.

What’s noteworthy here is how open Tom Clarke has been about the entire debacle. Usually when a company botches a big business deal, they stay away from the press. Clarke has taken the direct opposite approach. He’s conspicuously chipper about the entire experience.

CLARKE:  We’re a nonprofit organization so I feel like we’re owned by the people of the Virginia.  We have to by definition be very open …We view Natural Bridge clearly as the people’s bridge, the people’s park …I do believe that with hard work and tenacity we can have an impact.

And he adds that if Virginians want to support the bridge, go to the bridge. The hotel and caverns might be open only on the weekends, but the bridge is open all winter.