NATURAL BRIDGE — The rock bridge of Rockbridge County is now a state park.
Standing beneath the 215-foot high limestone arch, his amplified voice bouncing off its craggy walls, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Saturday declared the geological formation and its 1,500 surrounding acres as the new Natural Bridge State Park.
Although the Natural Bridge attraction has faltered financially in recent years under nonprofit ownership, its new management by the state park system is expected to boost visitation, stabilize the bottom line and forever protect its natural and historic resources from commercial development.
What is now Virginia’s 37th state park will also become an affiliated area of National Park Service, McAuliffe announced.
Affiliation with the park service and its familiar arrowhead emblem — displayed on new signs unveiled at Saturday’s dedication — will allow Natural Bridge to tap into a larger base of visitors to national parks. The designation will also make it eligible for federal funding.
The National Park Service has 25 affiliated areas, four of them in Virginia: the Jamestown National Historic Site, the Green Springs National Historic Landmark District, the Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial and now Natural Bridge.
Unlike most public parks, Natural Bridge is neither state nor federally owned.
Under an unusual agreement, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund will continue to own the property until it can pay off a $9.1 million loan it used to purchase the landmark and surrounding land nearly three years ago, with plans to eventually donate it to the commonwealth for use as a state park.
State officials stepped in after VCLF and its founder, health care executive Tom Clarke, were unable to make loan payments on time to the Virginia Resources Authority. Bills from other creditors piled up as they failed to keep the tourist attraction profitable.
Starting Saturday, Natural Bridge will be managed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which unlike Clarke’s group has a statewide infrastructure and extensive experience in running state parks
By cutting ticket prices by nearly half — to $8 for adults and $6 for children — the state is banking on increased attendance to the park, by 24 percent in the first year. Better advertising, including new signs along nearby Interstate 81 that were taken down due to earlier budget woes, and a restocked gift store are also expected to help.
Annual revenue is projected to grow from $2.3 million in 2017 to $3.1 million in 2021, according to a business plan compiled by DCR.
The business plan was premised on a decision earlier this month by the Virginia Resources Authority to restructure the loan to Clarke’s organization, cutting annual payments in half by extending the 10-year loan for another decade.
Under the new arrangement, DCR will collect admissions and gift shop revenues. The state agency will use that money to make payments on the loan, which has a current balance of $7.2 million.
VCLF will continue to own and operate the Natural Bridge Hotel, across U.S. 11 from the rock bridge formation, and a nearby cavern where guided tours are available.
At Saturday’s event, state officials acknowledged they were taking a risk. No other state park sits on privately-owned land — not to mention property that until recently was flirting with foreclosure.
“We did have a few bumps on the road, but anything worth working for is going to take time and effort,” McAuliffe said.
For his part, Clarke admitted that he was a little naive about the realities of running a park and a hotel when he made a multi-million dollar purchase that was motivated by his desire to save the natural attraction from being sold at auction.
The lesson to be learned from his ordeal, Clarke said, is that good things happen when the private and public sectors come together the way they did with Natural Bridge.
“When we faced controversy, people didn’t run away from that,” he said.
With Natural Bridge now a state park, new signs and lower ticket prices are not the only changes.
Foamhenge, a life-sized replica of Stonehenge built from Styrofoam by local artist Mark Cline, no longer sits on a hillside a few miles to the north. After it was determined that such an attraction was not in keeping with the state park system’s mission, Cline was asked to take the popular landmark down.
Another attraction, the Drama of Creation, will stay — at least for now. The sound-and-light show held nightly beneath the bridge is based on the Book of Genesis, raising questions about whether a religious performance should be part of a state park.
But because VCLF will remain the private owner of the land until its debt is retired, officials decided to allow the presentation to continue, DCR director Clyde Cristman said.
The agreement is based on assurances that the Drama of Creation will be held in the evening, after the state park is closed, and that no proceeds from it will be used by the state.
With increased visitation, Natural Bridge State Park is expected to pump about $4.5 million into Rockbridge County’s economy, according to the business plan.
“Once you pull people off the interstate, maybe they’ll start seeing some other things here,” County Administrator Spencer Suter said.
More than 100 people attended Saturday’s dedication. Many faces in the audience tilted upwards in awe of the stone arch, carved out of the landscape centuries ago by Cedar Creek, which still flows under Natural Bridge.
Ever since Thomas Jefferson paid 20 shillings to purchase the bridge from King George III of England in 1774, it has remained in private hands.
When Natural Bridge and its 1,500 mostly-wooded acres were put up for sale in 2013, the property was divided into about 30 parcels. Some feared that at auction, parts of the property would go to new owners interested in building condominiums or commercial enterprises.
The purchase by VCLF put an end to those concerns. As he dedicated the new state park, McAuliffe said: “This would not have happened without Tom Clarke.”