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Roanoke County announces long-term lease to operate Explore Park and add it to the county's inventory of parks and recreation offerings.
The Roanoke Times | File 2010
Roanoke County hosted a community meeting about the future of Explore Park on Thursday.
Friday, August 30, 2013
Roanoke County officials today announced their plans to enter into an agreement with the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority to administer Explore Park and lead the way in its development.
The agreement, if officially adopted in September, will end years of speculation as to who will steer the direction the 1,100-acre park. Speaking to a crowd of more than 50 people, Roanoke County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mike Altizer said he was pleased to make the announcement, but included one disclaimer.
“This is a great day,” Altizer said. “For some, that may not come into realization for a long time.”
It was a line repeated again and again: be patient as officials manicure the land, clear trails and attempt to create partnerships with the private sector to boost tourism foot traffic to the park.
“This is not going to be achieved overnight,” he said. “This will happen gradually, methodically. It is about economic development, it’s about a destination in Roanoke County and the Valley.”
Under the agreement, the park would be added to the county’s inventory of recreation facilities for 99 years and the proposed price of a dollar a year.
The first master plan for the park was introduced in 1987, and included a $350 million concept for a Lewis and Clark-themed amusement spot, complete with hotels, a zoo, and other attractions. The park opened in 1994, with only a modest selection of activities focused on the region's early history.
Designs for the land have hobbled along since. In the mid-2000s, a Florida developer announced plans to invest $200 million there. That effort collapsed, though, and left the park with a shuttered living history exhibit. It now maintains only one building, the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center.
Some $60 million in public and private funding has been invested in the park since its creation, most of that coming from taxpayers.
Altizer said the county Department of Parks and Recreation would maintain the park without making additional hires.
The agreement also marked the end of an era for Debbie Pitts, who has served as the park’s executive director for years. Pitts, who left retirement to take on the responsibility, said she had plans to recede back into retirement once the transition was complete.
“I’m relieved that Explore Park is going to move forward,” she said. “I’m excited about that.”
Per state code, the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority will continue to own the land and oversee the development, but the board will effectively operate as a landlord if the agreement is approved, said board member and state Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County.
Head praised the move, even as he fielded the complaints of at least one naysayer at the announcement.
Max Beyer, a member of the Roanoke County Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Advisory Committee, said the announcement today was the first he had heard of the plans for Explore Park. He said he disagreed with the move for several reasons.
“Every time we have a problem, we throw government into it,” he lamented. “They say they’re going to use existing resources, but if they’re spending their time over here, what falls off the table?”
Beyer added that he believes the move will eventually come back to haunt taxpayers.
Head rebuffed those complaints, though, emphasizing the opportunity to create the opportunities for private industry to move into the area and start revenue-generating ventures.
“I think there is a tendency to look at this and equate it with other things in the past,” he said, referencing the county’s Green Ridge Recreation Center. “But this one is so radically different.”
With buildings, roads and land already available, the county is positioned well to start approaching the private sector immediately, he said. Already officials are talking about extending the greenway system to the park. If connected to Green Hill Park, the path will measure nearly 25 miles long.
“When tourism starts happening, economic development starts happening,” Head said.
Supervisors Altizer, Charlotte Moore, and Ed Elswick echoed that sentiment.
“If anybody can make it work, it’s our Parks and Rec department,” Elswick said. “We can’t spend a lot of money, but we don’t have to.”
The Roanoke County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the lease agreement at its Sept. 10 and 24 board meetings, with a public hearing on Sept. 24. The public has also been invited to attend a community meeting at the Explore Park Visitors Center at 6 p.m. Sept. 19.
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