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A short time frame for the sale of the historic formation argues for the state to play a role.
Monday, October 14, 2013
Even when the federal government isn’t marinating in mothballs, as it is at the moment, state leaders in Richmond have the ability to be more nimble than their counterparts in Washington, D.C., when opportunity comes knocking.
And Virginia officials recognize they have a unique chance to add an historic treasure to their state park system with the impending sale of Natural Bridge.
When the current owner first announced he would sell the property, there was much discussion about whether it should be absorbed into the National Park Service, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th District, requested a study. That analysis is now on pause because of the government shutdown, a fact that reinforces concerns about whether there is the political will on Capitol Hill to fund existing assets, much less new ones.
But Gov. Bob McDonnell has signaled a willingness to accept the 215-foot limestone formation, once owned by Thomas Jefferson, as a state park if a private individual or group wishes to purchase the property and donate it for that purpose. Adjacent parcels with commercial development would remain in private hands. That sounds like a reasonable outcome.
Although the auction of the property has been postponed to complete a survey of the parcels, time remains of the essence. Would-be purchasers motivated by conservation tax credits would likely want to seal a deal by the end of the year. Such a short time frame argues for the state to play a role.
There’s still a question, though, about how the state will pay for operations. That issue is already being considered as part of discussions that involve the existing owner, local governments, conservation groups and the state. One scenario would allow for a friendly transition from private ownership to state park, providing time for the legislature to meet this winter and approve funding for initial capital improvements, staffing and maintenance.
The newest state park to date, located in Powhatan County, has a $400,000 annual budget, according to Joe Elton, state parks director. But Natural Bridge holds the potential to attract far more visitors given its location off of Interstate 81 and proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Park. And it has a proven ability to generate revenue.
Ticket sales already yield between $1 million and $2 million annually. Elton said the state would likely lower the fees — now $21 for adults and $12 for children — to ensure accessibility, but in turn market the attraction to draw a healthy revenue stream that would offset taxpayer support.
Jefferson purchased the arch for 20 shillings from King George III in 1774. The finances for turning it into a state park are a bit more complex, but it appears a viable and fiscally responsible plan is taking shape, one that would spur economic activity in the region and preserve the bridge for future generations of Virginians.
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