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For the second time in its history, plans for Explore Park to become a multi-million dollar family vacation destination spot have fallen by the wayside.
At the Park’s inception, the plan was for a $350 million Lewis and Clark-themed park with hotels, a zoo, retail and other attractions. The park would eventually take a different route, before falling on hard times in 2007. That’s when the living history portion of the park shut down because of a lack of funds.
Enter Florida entrepreneur Larry Vander Maten into the picture. His plan, a $200 million overnight family vacation destination to rejuvenate the park called “Blue Ridge America.” It seemed like the perfect solution for the Park’s future. But the economy didn’t cooperate and funding became impossible.
Now Explore’s ties to Vander Maten have been cut, and the Park’s future is once again up in the air. It’s a shame, but it’s also not over.
Explore, a portion of which is located in Bedford County, is not closed. And it shouldn’t be. Millions of dollars have been spent developing the Park the past quarter of a century and there’s still plenty of potential there.
Now it’s a matter of determining just what that is.
Volunteers help make sure that the Park remains open for hiking, biking, fishing and boating. But the potential remains there for something much more. And it should be.
K.C. Bratton, an authority board member and chairman of the Explore Park Economic Development Consortium, told the Roanoke Times recently that the next step will not be “a new incarnation of the park, but an evolution of what has been happening over the last 24 years.” But if it’s going to be viable, it will need to be innovative.
When it originally dropped the $350 million Lewis and Clark-theme park, Explore lost its appeal as a destination location. It became a good field trip for school children or a place for outdoor enthusiasts to spend a few hours, but the hope that it would become a tourist draw never came to fruition. The appeal just wasn’t there.
“Someday, Walt Disney may come in,” Bratton told the Roanoke Times. “You never know. But this is not the right time for that. It’s time to present to the public the asset as is right now.”
A lot of money, most of it from taxpayers, has gone into Explore — some $60 million. There should be more there to show for that investment. Hopefully one day there will be. But planners don’t feel that’s realistic right now. The Park faltered when it became a conservation education center. It didn’t recover from that ill-fated step and has failed to live up to its potential ever since.
“What we were hoping to gain with Vander Maten was tax revenue or an increase in tourism that would benefit the community,” Bratton said. “Now, we’ll be looking for a return based not on revenue, but on usage.”
Too much taxpayer money has been poured into this project to let it die. Former Roanoke County Administrator Elmer Hodge, now a Bedford area resident, told the Roanoke Times that he believes the park’s future could include “some blend of history, some blend of competitive sports, some blend of family tourism for use of the river and trails.”
That sounds like a good start. The taxpayers deserve that — and much more.