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Roanoke County leaders plan to make the park a regional outdoor recreation attraction.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
At last, Explore Park has found a stable partner, good for the long haul.
Roanoke County, its most steadfast supporter through years of struggle to find its footing, is ready to commit its resources to manage, maintain and develop the park.
Explore’s governing body, the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority, is in the final stages of negotiating a 99-year lease to the county. The marriage will be one of convenience, but that is no bad thing.
The authority and the county share a common vision for the park as a regional outdoor recreation attraction that conserves scenic areas, preserves open space and, at the same time, can be made a valuable economic tool.
That has been the hope from its conception, in 1986.
After 27 years, dreams that Explore would blossom into a major tourist destination — from a Lewis and Clark-themed amusement park, with zoo, to a Disneyesque family resort — have faded into might-have-beens. Probably, all for the best.
The park opened in 1994 as a living history museum, with attention to historical accuracy. It offered a laudable program for 19 years, but in the end did not draw enough visitors to survive.
Hope was revived when a wealthy Florida suitor, Larry Vander Maten, came calling with promises to invest $200 million, but the deal fell apart in the post-housing bubble credit crunch. By then, the romance had started to sour anyway, especially after the developer made it clear a public access point to the Roanoke River would be made off-limits.
Explore has had to scrape along these last few years on depleted county support as the state authority tried to execute a Plan B: create smaller public-private partnerships to invest in attractions that would pull in tourists and generate income — for the park and surrounding businesses.
But as authority board members acknowledge, it didn’t have the resources to make that model work.
Roanoke County does, in the form of staff and expertise.
Early on, its financial investment will be negligible. For $1 a year for 99 years, it will bring Explore under the umbrella of the parks and recreation department. Supervisors Chairman Mike Altizer said last week the department can maintain the park without additional personnel.
County control also will bring staff expertise to develop revenue-generating programs to offset operations and maintenance costs, and the long-term financial stability necessary to create a master plan, market it and attract private enterprises.
The county and authority still have to sign off on the arrangement, and the public will have ample opportunity to weigh in. The supervisors will discuss the plan at its next meeting, Sept. 10, hold a community meeting Sept. 19 and a formal public hearing Sept. 24.
Without county action, the tract would revert to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, undoubtedly to remain mothballed for the foreseeable future. The General Assembly rejected two budget amendments for funding to make the park ready for development.
The county is the remaining hope for bringing Explore to life.
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