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Thursday, September 26, 2013
The long saga of Explore Park has begun a new chapter. Roanoke County is prepared to enter into a 99-year lease on the property, aiming to give western Virginia a first-rate recreational and educational asset, raising awareness of our history, our environment and the glories of nature.
Explore originally was envisioned as a Lewis and Clark theme park in the mid-1980s, but by the time it opened in 1994 had evolved into a regional attraction to bring the past back to life while highlighting the unique beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. For years it did so, and for aficionados like my family and me, was a magical place to experience.
Declining visitation and rising costs led the park to shut down the historic areas in 2007. For an interminable while, Explore flirted with a Florida developer with a grand vision of a historic attraction. He never could raise the capital needed and pulled out. And so this gem along the parkway continued to languish.
Recently was it announced that Roanoke County would try to save the day by taking over administration of Explore, stabilizing operations while utilizing the park’s great assets. The long-term goal is to create a sustainable “regional adventure park.”
As I write this, a public hearing on the Explore question, inconveniently scheduled after my deadline, has yet to be held. So you will likely know more reading this than I did writing it. [The lease was approved.] Still, I will venture to do what opinion columnists do best: opine. I, for one, think this is an arrangement full of great possibilities, and the right course of action.
Some may argue that we gave Explore a chance and it fizzled, and so like a restaurant that goes out of business, it deserves to be forgotten. But these naysayers ignore a legal aspect of the question.
In 1986, the state government created the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority, the entity that oversees Explore, expressly to “(i) provide a high quality recreational attraction in the western part of the Commonwealth; (ii) expand the historical knowledge of adults and children; (iii) promote tourism and economic development in the Commonwealth; (iv) set aside and conserve scenic and natural areas along the Roanoke River and preserve open-space lands; and (v) enhance and expand research and educational programs.” The relevant section of the Code of Virginia (§ 10.1-1601) then adds that “the Authority’s exercise of the powers conferred by this chapter shall be deemed to be the performance of an essential governmental function.”
Now, we might argue about whether such phraseology should have been used or whether such things are indeed “essential.” But until the Code is changed, it seems to this non-lawyer that what VRFA responsibly decides to do in pursuit of the five functions described above is by default “essential.” If turning over administration to Roanoke County Parks and Rec is the best of the many options VRFA has investigated, then doing so becomes “essential.”
So what should happen if Roanoke County takes over? Explore, I hope, will become what it always promised to be: an attraction delighting residents and bringing outside visitors to the valley. The county needs to keep in mind the five purposes established in the code section above: recreation, history, tourism, conservation and education. By designing programs to fulfill each of these five purposes, the county could greatly enhance our community.
As an historian, it’s the second thing on the list to which I naturally gravitate. It’s worth remembering that some of the buildings in the shuttered historic areas are original structures, relocated to Explore for preservation and for educational use. Any lease to the county needs to stipulate the safeguarding of these venerable buildings. To lose them, after moving them expressly to save them, would be a great misfortune.
Beyond that, offering varied and affordable outdoor activities (as Explore has continued to do since it “closed”) is essential. It pains me to say it, but not everyone is a history buff. Yet many people who are not will jump at the chance to go mountain biking, fly fishing or take a guided nature hike in some of the most bio-diverse forest land in America. Both constituencies deserve to be served.
Once upon too short a time, there was a magical place nestled in our mountains, where young and old could learn to relate to their roots and appreciate nature. Roanoke County now has a chance to bring that magic back. Let’s give it the chance.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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