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Roanoke County hosted a gathering Thursday evening to hear ideas for the long-term direction of the 1,100-acre park.
The Roanoke Times | File 2010
Roanoke County hosted a community meeting about the future of Explore Park on Thursday.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
In a world where some people believe many children suffer from so-called "nature deficit disorder," several people who attended a meeting Thursday night at Explore Park said they believe the park should again emphasize nature education for children.
One was Fred Cramer, an artist, photographer and birder who stressed the importance of introducing children to nature.
Cramer was one of about 150 people who attended a meeting hosted by Roanoke County at the park's Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center on Thursday night to discuss Explore Park's future and the role the county might play in its revitalization.
On Aug. 29, Roanoke County officials announced plans to enter into a lease agreement with the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority to administer Explore Park and lead the way in developing the 1,100-acre park off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
On Tuesday, the county's board of supervisors will hold a public hearing to solicit input about that proposal. Chairman Mike Altizer said Thursday he anticipates supervisors will vote that night to approve the lease.
The agreement specifies that the county would add the park to its inventory of recreation facilities for 99 years at the proposed lease price of a dollar a year. The recreational facilities authority would retain ownership of the land and oversee development.
Cramer emphasized that he is often skeptical of government promises, noting that the county once described plans for a business park near Vinton that ended up becoming home for the Cardinal Glass factory.
"Roanoke County has a way of misleading you," he said, but added that "the park has to have somebody take it over."
Dan Johnson, executive for the Blue Ridge Mountains Council of the Boy Scouts of America, attended the meeting and expressed support for Roanoke County's plan to lease the park.
"Scouting thinks this is a tremendous resource and Scouts have used this property since the beginning," Johnson said.
Toni Preston said she came to hear about the county's plans for the park. She said she hopes county officials will be open to the ideas they are soliciting.
"I think it's going to be real important for them to have the backing of the community," Preston said.
Carolyn Henritze said she believes area businesses could help sponsor features at the park, which she said she hopes will remain an outdoor recreation facility and not become an amusement park.
Doug Blount, director of the county's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, told the crowd the county sees the potential for a regional outdoor adventure park. He noted the park already has access to the Roanoke River and hiking and biking trails.
Liz Belcher, Roanoke Valley Greenway coordinator, said the county's involvement in Explore Park should mean that "we can secure the right of way for the greenway" at the site. Plans call for the greenway to reach Explore Park by 2020 or sooner.
An original 1987 master plan for the park included a concept for a $350 million Lewis and Clark-themed amusement park, along with hotels, a zoo, retail and other amenities designed to draw tourists and regional customers. The park opened seven years later with a modest array of attractions. In 2007, the authority shut down the park's living history activities and shuttered all buildings except the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center.
Some $60 million in public and private funding has been invested in the park since its creation, most coming from taxpayers.
Brian Lang, a candidate for the county board of supervisors, said he believes that not all that money was wisely invested and he hopes Roanoke County will complete a comprehensive review that "looks at how the park failed before."
In 2010, Larry Vander Maten, a Florida entrepreneur, abandoned plans to build a $200 million overnight family vacation destination at the park after failing to raise the necessary funds.
County officials have said they envision working with the private sector to boost park visitation. Altizer has said the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism would maintain the park without additional hires.
But Blount and other officials said they will need to find ways to generate revenue from the park.
Preston said she hopes that any future park amenities will be affordable for an average family.
"They've got to keep it reasonable," she said.
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