The Roanoker magazine, May 1988
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the May, 1988 issue of The Roanoker magazine
Something happened in the Roanoke Valley this spring.
Something that dwarfs the opening of Valley View Mall three summers ago, and has the potential to boost the value of our economy by some (50 million-to increase the total worth of the Roanoke Valley economy by more than a full percent.
And yet, if you’re like thousands of other Roanokers, you may not be aware that Christmas indeed came to the Roanoke Valley this spring. Like many of us who followed the saga, you too; may be unaware that despite the efforts of Senator Granger Macfarlane and a small group of Bedford County homeowners, the most important economic event to hit Roanoke in 30 years-since back when American Viscose; closed down and suddenly eliminated 1,750 jobs-was not derailed.
Despite Macfarlane, a tiny, special-interest group of Hardy residents and a local paper that seemed at times to be used by both, the Explore Project is alive and well. It survived. The General Assembly-without great ceremony or heraldry, kicked in $6 million for Explore’s creation, bringing to $25 million the total raised to make the project a reality. What that reality means in that we will soon have, at the very least and at the edge of Roanoke, a 1,500-acre state park that will contain a 10-mile extention of the Blue Ridge Parkway. What may ultimately happen on those 1,500 acres if Explore’s $350-million hopes are realized is beyond the scope of anything Western Virginia has ever seen.
This story, then, is about three things:
1. What we have-the park and parkway extension and all their vast potential to become a world-class history- and discovery-oriented family-experience theme park filled with towns, restaurants, lodges, excursions and a magnificent collection of animals roaming its wilderness areas.
2. That aforementioned state senator-Granger Macfarlane of Roanoke, who began what he has always denied is opposition to Explore by calling it “an Alice in Wonderland idea,” and then let his ostensible answer-seeking about the project get so out of hand that he ultimately indulged in the baldly political tactic of trying to take money earmarked for the valley and send it to other districts-districts of committee members whose votes he needed to block Explore funding.
3. A newspaper at odds with itself. A paper which in countless editorials both praised and supported the project, but a paper whose news staff often tended to play the tiny, vocal minority of opposition larger than the substance of a project favored by an almost 2-1 majority according to its own Roanoke Valley Poll.
It all begins in…..
Summer, 1985. As if the fireworks at Victory Stadium may serve to obscure his own explosive news, Roanoke City Manager Bern Ewert picks the eve of Independence Day to drop his bombshell: that after seven-plus years as perhaps the most dynamic and forward-looking city manager since the “with progress there is disorder” days of Arthur Owens in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he will resign his post in a month. Many are surprised at what seems an abrupt departure, especially since his destination is not a larger city as some had feared, but a small office on Main Street in Salem, where he signs a three-year contract to become director of an apparently just-sprung-to-life entity called the River Foundation-a non-profit organization backed by the pillars of Roanoke development, including influential millionaire industrialist John Hancock and furniture retailer George Cartledge.
In quitting, Ewert left behind not just a city with strengthened neighborhoods, a revitalized downtown and a fiscally sound government, but also a generally shocked citizenry, including the immensely popular mayor, Dr. Noel Taylor, who fought tears to characterize Ewert as “one of the top 10 city managers” in the country.
As he did when he took over the city, Ewert begins his new task with intensity and action. He quickly embarks on a sell-Explore campaign that will see him give some 350 speeches around the valley over the next 30 months. Some of those speeches are explanatory, some conciliatory and many impassioned. But all have the same goal: To awaken this part of the state to its paradoxical twin attributes-great natural beauty and poor economic growth-and to propose the vast Disneyland/National Forest hybrid to concurrently capitalize on the beauty and cure the economic woes.
And where had the idea come from? Well, the groundwork for the parkway facet had been laid back in the fall of 1984. Blue Ridge
Parkway Superintendent Gary Everhardt, in meetings with Roanoke City officials to discuss the parkway’s upcoming fiftieth anniversary celebration, proposes an idea in keeping with the goals and aims of the National Parks Ser-vice: to create a scenic route along the Roanoke River. Meanwhile, in the city, Mill Mountain Zoo proposes to expand its tiny, mountain-top zoo, but needs a new and larger site to do so.
By March of ‘85, with Ewert still in the city manager’s chair, things are beginning to percolate: the Virginia General Assembly allocates $250,000 to advance design of a scenic route between downtown Roanoke and the proposed new zoo; a concept plan includes not just the zoo and parkway but a golf course, lodge, bicycle trail, amphitheater and more-all near the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Roanoke River; letters of endorsement and unanimous-vote resolutions of support follow like falling dominoes from the governing bodies of Roanoke City, Vinton, Bedford County, Roanoke County, Botetourt County, Franklin County, Bedford City and Salem City. So by the time Ewert explodes his July 4 fireworks, there’s significant momentum with him.
But there’s still the question of money. A key turning point in the early days of that quest came in February, 1987, as Washington DC. is immobilized by a major snowstorm. In his Capitol Hill office, Virginia’s senior U.S. senator, John Warner, is in sock and sweats. His visitor, Bern Ewert, is in need of federal money and Wamer’s help to get it-to build that road that Gary Everhardt talked about back in 1984. Ewert takes advantage of the weather-created opportunity by playing on Warner’s fondness for history. Ewert talks about the role that the Lewis and dark expedition will play in the project that’s being worked on back in the Roanoke Valley. Within a few weeks of the Wamer/Ewert meeting, a highway bill containing $12 million for the roadway is passed in both houses, vetoed by President Reagan, revived as the veto is overridden, and a road is born.
And not just any road. It is a road that was first proposed by a consulting planner as long ago as 1907, and again by the same planner in 1928. Roanoke has always had a son of wistful longing for a riverside parkway, but beyond the start made with Wiley Drive in the 1950s, has lacked the will and vision to carry it out. But now, with a road through a rugged, unspoiled tract of Virginia land just off the parkway and leading to a beautiful man-made lake pushed up against the shoulders of Smith Mountain, Roanoke will have its spur into the wilds. The ingredients are a planner’s dream:
* The anchor is Roanoke-the largest city along the country’s most popular scenic highway, which attracts more than 20 million people a year.
* The jewel at the end of the drive is Smith Mountain Lake-20,000 acres of clear blue water with the best inland striper fishing in the U.S.
* And the connection between them is to be a scenic, nature-dominated country parkway reminiscent of the Colonial Parkway between Williamsburg and Jamestown.
And if that planner had paid much attention to Roanoke, he would be aware that the need for the project went well beyond beauty. He could look at Roanoke’s growth figures over the 1960-1980 period and see us plodding along at less than 1 percent increase in population per year. While Richmond grew by 36 percent over the 20 years, and Greensboro by 33 percent, Roanoke inched up by 15 percent. And the 1980-1986 figures showed more of the same: 2 percent growth over those years for Roanoke while Norfolk steamed along at seven times that (13.9 percent) and Charlottesville (6.9 percent) and Richmond (6.4 percent) more than tripled Roanoke’s growth rate. As he made his speeches on the importance of pursuing Explore, Ewert called it “a crisis.”
The causes and symptoms overlapped:
* Norfolk & Western Railway, which had built the town and been its driving economic force since the 1880s, had by the 1980s begun an exodus. Employment was down, and the corporate identity was about to disappear as the new Norfolk-Southern Corporation took more and more of its wealth and accompanying com-munity concern and largess to the booming markets of Atlanta and Norfolk.
* Piedmont Airlines, which prior to industry deregulation in 1978 used Roanoke as its hub airport and brought 40 to 50 flights a day in at Woodrum Field, was down to 17 flights a day by early 1984. Roanoke’s hub status was gone as the up-and-coming airline moved its link-up facilities to up-and-coming cities like Charlotte and Baltimore.
* The national pattern of movement to a service-oriented economy did not bypass Roanoke as many previous national economic fluctuations had. Major-firm employment dropped from 32,762 in 1985 to 31,314 in 1986. Construction employment was down by almost 50 percent over that period. As the U.S. made fewer of the goods-the TVs and washing machines and automobiles that it had once shown the world how to make-so did some of the high-paying, build-it jobs leave Roanoke, most often replaced by far lower-paying service jobs.
* As the sheen came off the Sunbelt boom (which affected Roanoke only minimally anyway), the valley banded together in late 1983 to create what was to be its economic salvation-a five-government, four-chamber of commerce umbrella job-creation agency call-ed The Regional Partnership of Roanoke Valley. Five years later, in early 1988, the partnership surveys corporate American and finds that in general that American Business does not know Roanoke from a hole in the ground. Once again, as it did at its onset, the partnership opines that before we can really do anything about jobs, we need to get people to know that Roanoke is here.
* Also in early ‘88, the long-time directors of both the Roanoke Valley and the Salem-Roanoke County chambers of commerce leave their posts for retirement. At the “roast” retirement dinner for Roanoke Valley Chamber exec Jack Smith, Dominion Bank shares President Warner Dalhouse says that in Smith’s 28-year career, the area had “lost Norfolk & Western Railway, the Piedmont Airlines hub, daily flights from American and Eastern airlines, four banks, three savings and loans. Interstate 64 and the Virginia Horse Center.” The distinction between roast and reality is painfully difficult to discern.
So Explore provided not just beauty, but also a best-hope by far for Roanoke to end its quarter-century growth slump. As Southwest Virginia watched its coal and tobacco industries crumble and its transportation giants move away, the Regional Science Research Institute of Rhode Island provided figures on Explore’s potential for economic growth:
* The attraction of a million visitors per year, with some 330,000 overnight visitors spending an average of $56 per day above and beyond the park admission costs.
* The creation of more than 2,500 new jobs-half of them full-time-generating $31 million in wages.
* The generation of $1.7 million in tax dollars to local jurisdictions and $4.1 million to the state.
* In sum, a project expected to add slightly more than one percent of value to the primary benefit area of the counties of Roanoke, Bed-ford, Franklin and Botetourt, the cities of Roanoke and Salem and the town of Vinton.
While there were some who charged that the coming jobs were too service oriented, too part-time and too low-paying. Explore was nonetheless our best hope for economic salvation.
“Tell me how to save coal and I’ll do it,” says Vinton Delegate and Explore’s legislative champion Richard Cranwell. “Tell me how to create a crop that will replace tobacco and I’ll work on it. There’s no suggestion to turn our backs on industry. Tell me how to keep Norfolk Southern from moving away and I’ll go at it. To those who say we need more basic industry, I say show me how we do it. I know we have the tools to generate a tourist trade.”
In the meantime, as the state highway department puts up $3 million toward the roadway and support builds for the project, other forces begin to gather measures of strength and momentum against it. Faced with the prospect of huge success, the valley starts looking over its shoulder a bit, losing a little confidence as it looks ahead.
One early inkling of this syndrome occurs in January, 1986, as a heretofore obscure Mennonite minister named David Hayden links his own worthy cause to the Explore project with a statement of significant oversimplification: “It’s absurd,” he tells a group at a public meeting in Mount Pleasant, “it’s Orwellian to talk about building a zoo to house animals when you’re taking these people’s homes to do it.” Hayden will bounce in and out of news coverage for the next year and a half, culminating with front-page newspaper coverage of the beginning of his protest fast in August of 1987. Hayden’s constituency-the disadvantaged and the homeless-holds a tender spot in Roanoke’s collective social conscience. And as if to placate that conscience, Roanoke takes a step toward allowing their cause to be linked to Explore. The newspaper, as a primary reporter of Hayden’s protest, moves toward the role of messenger for Hayden to work on Roanoke’s guilt and good nature. It is as if Hayden has learned the same lessons that the radical blacks used in Tom Wolfe’s “Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers,” where a very small but very vocal minority took their case to the spot where it would get maximum notice and then began banging and shouting to get that notice.
“If you were outrageous enough,” Wolfe wrote in his 1970 book, “if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze in-to iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak-then they knew you were the real goods.”
And then, as if Roanoke truly can’t stand the prosperity, as if our collective psyche is like that of the compulsive failer-the person who when he reaches the brink of success finds himself unable to accept it and therefore calls on a part of his subconscious to subvert the oncoming prosperity and progress-and then…
… Along comes the Grinch. . .
…And the summer of 1987, when State Senator Granger Macfarlane (D-Roanoke), who has by then earned a reputation-and a vote-as ranking high among the least effective legislators in Richmond, says he feels Explore is just his fourth priority for the valley-behind the airport, flood control and the renovation of Jefferson High School. Macfarlane, labeled by fellow lawmaker Joseph Gartlan as “a super-klutz, a world-class meddler,” agrees to meet with and inform the group of Bedford County residents who are worried about their homes being taken by Explore. The double irony of the individuals living outside of Macfarlane’s district and his consistent refusal to meet with Explore officials to learn details of the project is apparently lost on Macfarlane as the fall elec-tions draw near and he apparently senses a campaign issue-this despite results of the Roanoke Times & World-News/Roanoke College 1986 Roanoke Valley Poll which indicate 56 percent of those polled in favor of the project versus 34 percent opposed. As the Times & World-News editorial staff turn out editorial after editorial of nearly passionate support for the project, the same newspaper pages carry innumerable letters of opposition and the news pages continue to carry stories of woe and protest from the Hardy area.
In meeting with the Bedford group-which adopts the almost playful acronym HARP (Hardy Against the River Project)-Macfarlane gives early indication of attempting to spoil the valley’s Explore hopes.
In the tradition of voting down a civic center several times while the big concerts go elsewhere, and of quarreling for years over a runway extension while Piedmont goes elsewhere, and of avoiding governmental consolidation while the cost of government goes up and corporate America remains perplexed about why it has to contact three or four governments to have a look at the potential industrial sites in the valley, Roanoke’s collective darker-side psyche ferrets out Macfarlane to do the dirty work of subverting its own success.
Macfarlane’s visit with the Hardy group prompts an immediate and powerful response from Harry Nickens, the normally calm and proper Roanoke County supervisor from the Vinton District. His letter, dated July 24,1987, is direct in point and sharp in tone:
Your making yourself immediately available to those Bedford County homeowners who are distraught (rightfully so) about the potential loss of their homes to the Roanoke River Parkway/Explore Project is most disconcerting. For ten days, I attempted to schedule a meeting with you so that you might be ‘ ‘informed” about the Explore Project. You elected not to meet without other members of the General Assembly from the Roanoke Valley being present; yet you are, without other members of the Valley Delegation and even without the State Senator representing those citizens from Bedford County being present, making yourself available, in an uninformed state, to discuss alternate routes of the scenic parkway. How can you intelligently discuss the issues with emotionally involved (again I do not minimize the concerns) citizens without being informed yourself?
Where were you when 150 of your own constituents from the Mount Pleasant area of my district felt threatened with the loss of their homes? Where were you when the Wometco Project in the City of Roanoke resulted in the bulldozing of twenty of your constituents’ homes? Yes, this is an election year…
I do not recall seeing you at any of the 18 to 20 meetings relative to the Explore Project that have been held in the Vinton/East County area. Yet, you are traveling to meet with non-constituents to learn how you might represent their interests. Most perplexing!…
. . . Yes, I have devoted many hours to walking the Roanoke River and working with the fine people of Mount Pleasant and East County and with the Explore Staff in order to minimize the potentially negative impact that the project might have in those communities. As you may or may not know, my efforts, along with those of the County’s Planning Department and those of Delegate C. Richard Cranwell, have resulted in an enhanced project with minimal impact on your and my constituents.
I have every reason to believe that the same considerations by your Planning Staff and by the Explore Staff will be given to those concerns expressed by the citizens living on Route 633 in Bedford County. As best I can determine, and as you would suspect, I feel I know the thinking of the people from my district, the majority of our constituents are in support of the Explore Project. Opposition from within the Mount Pleasant community is now minimal. This did not happen by chance. This tum around of attitude can be directly attributed to the planning process surrounding the Explore Project. The same process is being followed in dealing with the con-cerns that have surfaced from citizens residing in Bedford County. All this to say that the majority of citizens from East County and the governing bodies of the three political subdivisions that are within your Senatorial District are supportive of the Explore Project. I trust that you too will soon have available to you enough objective, hard data to number you among those who are supportive.
Macfarlane never did. As the summer wears on, with his election campaign aided by Paul Goodman, who relied heavily on negatives when he ran Henry Howell’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns, Macfarlane gains added momentum from two factors:
* The deft use of Macfarlane’s negatives-his selection by his colleagues in Richmond as the next-to-least effective legislator in the state-to his advantage; his campaign took the “uncooperative” and “Lone Ranger” categorizations and turned them into “independent” and “owned by no one.”
* The generally ineffective campaign of Macfarlane’s opponent-political newcomer and former Roanoke Memorial Hospital head William “Ham” Flannagan, who while generally supporting Explore, could find nothing on which to disagree with Macfarlane, and who waited until the last two weeks of the campaign to mount any real attack on his opponent.
By late November, with his 64-percent/36-percent thrashing of Flannagan bolstering his resolve and apparently providing him with what he felt to be a mandate from his constituents, Macfarlane moves into high gear as the “block that success” part of Roanoke’s collective psyche. Well before Governor Gerald Baliles included the $6 million in the state budget for Explore, Macfarlane accused the governor of a “rush to judgment” and of yielding to pressure if Baliles did indeed include funding for a project Macfarlane called “an Alice in Wonderland idea” when compared to Macfarlane’s priorities.
Macfarlane, who refused to comment to The Roanoker on his past actions, present views or future plans as related to Explore, then admits he hasn’t read the studies by the former number-two man at the famed San Diego Zoo-studies which assert that Explore will pay its own way-but nonetheless criticizes the study as “fundamentally flawed.” He calls for additional studies to be undertaken, even though Explore has already agreed to have the University of Virginia’s Tayloe Murphy Institute study the report.
As the General Assembly convenes in January, Macfarlane’s attacks continue. In late January, having for months refused to accept River Foundation invitations to visit and hear first hand of the project, Macfarlane writes River Foundation President Douglas Cruickshanks a letter requesting financial in-formation on the project. Ten days after the date on his letter, Macfarlane tells the press that Cruickshanks would be “well advised” to re-spond with the nformation. Cruickshanks replies quickly, with a letter as strong and un-characteristic of personality as was Nickens’ during the summer. Cruickshanks asserts that Macfarlane’s opposition to the project “is bas-ed on something other than the actual project,” and then goes on:
Over two years ago, shortly after the formation of the River Foundation, I made an ap- pointment to visit with you and a member of your staff in your office. I gave you preliminary information about the concept for Explore, suggested you review it, and asked you to call me with your comments, questions or suggestions. I never heard from you, and now, two years later, you criticize me for not responding to your letter after only eight days.
I must add that repeatedly during your recent campaign you stated that no one from the River Foundation had ever had the courtesy to con-tact you concerning the project. That is just not true. In fact, you were the first valley legislator whose office I visited.
During the past two years, the River Foundation held over 30 public meetings hosted by six different localities to share our plans and seek public input. You did not attend one of those meetings.
On July 24, 1987, you did agree to meet with Dick Binford, our financial consultant and former Director of Operations for the San Diego Zoo. However, you then canceled that appointment because ‘ ‘all valley legislators had not been invited.” We would have been happy to invite the delegation, but we specifically in-vited you because of your concerns with our financial projections. Twice you have been invited to special briefings for all valley legislators. You attended neither. You have never visited the River Foundation office despite our invitations.
Since our inception in August of 1985, you have never called the River Foundation staff nor any member of the board to ask any questions or seek any information prior to your letter of Dec. 30, 1987. . .
Meanwhile in Richmond, Macfarlane is at work to siphon off $5 million of Explore’s $6 million in state funding. He proposes sending $2 million to farmers’ markets in Accomack, Carroll, Halifax and Hanover counties, and $250,000 to a lodge at Douthat State Park in Alleghany County. By now fully living up to his Grinch role, Macfarlane’s ostensible “questioning” of the project can no longer be viewed as such. By proposing to take the money away from his own district and send it to the districts of members of the Senate Finance Committee, where the fate of Explore’s $6 million will be decided, Macfarlane verifies his opposition to the project.
Like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch who tried to steal Christmas from Who-ville and was found out, Macfarlane’s attempt to bundle up the valley’s potential economic salvation piece and give it way is met with immediate reaction. With leadership from Vinton Delegate Richard Cranwell-Explore’s primary legislative backer-Macfarlane’s Grinch move is turned back.
“It was a move so clearly political in nature as to sink itself,” Cranwell will say later.
Project Director Bern Ewert agrees.
“If there was a single event that caused people to understand his motives,” says Ewert, “it was that event, because when he stopped talking about moving money from one project to another in the valley and began talking about sending the money to other parts of the state, it became clear that his real motivation was to hurt the project.”
But by the end of the General Assembly session in March, no hurt has been done to the pro-ject. It has come through its committee debates, its home-based opposition with its $6 million intact. So too are the $12 million in federal money and some $3 million in state highway funds.
In all, about $25 million had been raised for the project in less than three years. Backers were all but ecstatic, saying that progress is far beyond what they’d expected back in the summer of 1985. Washington and Richmond have come through in grand style.
But William Hopkins, River Foundation attorney and lobbyist in Richmond during the General Assembly, says that in retrospect the project was never in jeopardy. Hopkins, whose own initial skepticism about the project was erased when he heard of the National Park Service’s interest in a Blue Ridge Parkway extension, says a talk that he and Richard Cranwell had with the Republican Caucus took care of the doubts.
“After he and I talked to them,” Hopkins says, “and dealt with the proposal (made by Delegate George Alien of Charlottesville) to use the money for education, there was no major op-position. It was a matter of sitting down and spelling it out. Once that was done, then people saw that it made good sense. There were no votes against it in either the Senate Finance Committee or on the floor. It was all a matter of explaining and having it understood.
Explained and understood by all, it seems, except Granger Macfarlane. ‘ ‘It seemed he’d chartered his course of opposition,” Hopkins says, “and he didn’t attend any of the legislative meetings or briefings we had here in Roanoke, so I didn’t go try to explain it to him down there. I think he adopted it as a campaign issue and stuck with it.
“In the final analysis, the opposition the project received was likely based on ignorance of all the issues-of the fact that the money would promote both the environment and economic development. Once that was understood, it had very little opposition.”
Explore, under the stewardship of Richard Cranwell and fellow delegate Clifton “Chip” Woodrum, had made it. The process was long and arduous, and had included what Ewert has called a stroke of good luck when the state’s an-nual retreat for legislators took them to Little Rock, Arkansas, where a new riverside green-way had just been finished, but the task was accomplished, with primary credit to Cranwell.
Yet back home in Roanoke-where the 1987 Roanoke Valley Poll showed an almost 2-1 margin in favor of the project-the man on the street was holding to a perception that Explore’s continued existence and progress was tenuous at best. It was as if the biggest news to hit the area in years-the assured arrival of at least a beautiful park and roadway and at most a major national-destination theme park-had crept into town during the night while we slept.
The Roanoke Times & World-News, which covered Hayden and Hardy in great detail, and which presented the governor’s budget and the Explore Master Plan in grand, front-page fashion, seemed disinclined to ballyhoo the news that the project had arrived. On March 17, as the state’s legislators headed home from the session, a Section B story-run mid-page and with no photo-served to announce that the project had arrived.
The entity that had been praised and encouraged by at least 30 editorials, that had been debated in some 150 letters to the editor (running roughly 2-1 against the project), that had pawned two dozen Brian O’Neill columns and had been front-page news at least 30 times in the 14 months between October, 1986 and January, 1988-that entity was relegated to the local pages when the ship at last came in. With the mau-mauers gone and with the Grinch silenced, the good news came quietly at best.
John Hancock, Roanoke industrialist and philanthropist, and an early financial backer of Explore, said in a November, 1987 interview with The Roanoke Times & World-News that he felt the paper failed to take a leadership role on proposals that could benefit the area. He call-ed the paper “a hell of a hurdle” in that con-text, and charged a tendency to overplay the negatives. He mourned the days of local owner-ship, and pointed to papers in other cities which championed local issues more strongly than the Roanoke paper.Other friends and supporters of Explore have offered much the same view-that the paper emphasizes the negatives-but made their points on the condition of not being quoted.
Whatever attention it has or has not received, Explore is indeed here, with the potential to become that hybrid Disney land and left-alone national forest-a park that is to capitalize two assets of the area-history and environmental beauty. Spread over those 1,500 acres, most of which will appear as it does today, there will be several distinct areas and aspects:
American Wilderness Park. In re-creating in miniature much of the American landscape of the late 18 th and early 19 th century, the wilderness park will blend Indian pioneer ex-hibits with animals native to North America from Virginia west through the Ohio River Valley to St. Louis, the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.The Explore Master plan notes that “for the first ime in the history of zoological gardens, a visitor will see animals placed not only in con-text of natural habitats but in situations that relate them to the region’s history and culture. Unlike traditional zoos, with animals in cages, this park will feature open range animals bet-ween major destinations, viewed by visitors from special vehicles.”
Blue Ridge Town. As an operating town, the community will have museums, exhibits, shops, a gunsmith, tinker and blacksmith, plus dining experiences ranging from candlelit taprooms to full service dinner restaurants. Also available: bed and breakfast lodging and the Blue Ridge Inn-Victorian Hotel.
American Indian Park. A path will lead through re-created Indian villages, exhibits and taged events, including dances, crafts and con-tests. A museum, spirit house and treaty house will be the primary structures housing the history, artifacts and cultural exhibits of Indian civilization.
Blue Ridge Travler’s Village. Near the new Blue Ridge Parkway/Roanoke River roadway exchange will be a National Park Service visitor center at the edge of a man-made lake. Food, lodging and area information will be available in the area.
Ridgeline Resort Hotel. Designed as a grand, one of a kind lodging center, the hotel will be near enough to the intersection of the parkways that it will be visible for several miles in both directions along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The hotel is projected to be majestic in appearance,rising well up into the sky with its timber balconies.The extend to which all of that and much more-comes to be is now very much in the hands of the man whose vision and penchant for synergism has brought the project this far. Bern Ewert’s next mission-and he has chosen to accept it-is to attempt to raise some $62 million in private donations to push the project toward its potential.
“Our goal from here is to go out and convince a corporation in Chicago, for instance, that it’s in their best interest to put up major money for a project in the Roanoke Valley,” he says. “And that can be hard. Actually, we feel our major contributions will come from individuals rather than corporations.”
Ewert says most foundations make donations in the $2-million to $3-million range, and that the larger amounts must come from individuals.
“Our challenge is to find people who are interested in the things we’re trying to do-people interested in the environment, the Indians, the Appalachians, in pioneer history and national parks.
While Ewert projects an air of cautious hopefulness about the fundraising, William Hopkins says the location may be an asset of great value.
“People tend to feel that Explore is all or nothing,” he says. “But it’s not. It has been designed and staged so that it can be curtailed if it needs to be. But the thing to remember is that a prime location usually means a prime property, and that is certainly one prime location.”
Sidebar: Where Do We Go From Here?
Hiring The Brookings Institute To Raise $62 Million
Yes, Explore is a reality. We will have T 1,500-acre state park near the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Roanoke river, and that site will be bisected with a 10-mile river-side greenway reminiscent of the Colonial Parkway in Williamsburg.
But just how much of the S350-million mass-consisting of towns and museums, restaurants and lodging, zoos and natural history-gets built on that land is now dependent to a large degree on the success of the River Foundation and its director, Bern Ewert, in raising and initial goal of $62 million.
Ewert says the primary obstacle is to convince corporations around the country to put major funding into a project in the Roanoke Valley.
“We need to show them how it’s to their benefit,” he says, noting that foundations generally make donations in the $2-million to $3-million range, and that larger donations tend to come from individuals.
Toward the realization of the $62 million goa, Ewert says the River Foundation has contracted with Jack Hills, vice president of the Brookings Institute, to assist, over a two-to three-year period with the selling of the project.
“There’s just no way to predict if the fundraising will be slow, fast or not at all,” Ewert says.
William Hopkins, attorney for the River Foundation, says the Explore site, which he characterizes as “a fine piece of nature’s beauty.” may aid in its development.
“During the time when the land is acquired and the road is built,” he says, “the value goes up. Water is already committed, and we have reason to believe that the sewage will be, and once those are all in place, then your alternatives for development expand.”
Sidebar: Beyond Explore…
Cranwell Says Project Is Just Part Of Region’s Need
Delegate C. Richard Cranwell of Vinton, Explore’s Number-One Shepherd in the past General Assembly session, says the project is “just one part of the big picture.”
“The immediate picture can be seen by using the Roanoke County Schools as a perspective point. The state funding formula is based on growth. The reason there were school funding problems back in the spring is that the school population went down. If you have fewer students, you have fewer state dollars, so you either lay people off or fund the schools locally. That’s the immediate picture.
“The big picture goes far beyond the Roanoke Valley and into all of Virginia that’s not a part of the Urban Corridor from Northern Virginia down through Tidewater and Richmond. You look at growth patterns for the 1980-‘85 period and at projections for 1985-‘90 and it’s bleak. The ‘85-‘90 projection calls for an increase in population of some 600,000 in the Urban Crescent, and about 80,000 for us.”
Cranwell says the risk in that-and his response to those who say they don’t want us to become another Northern Virginia-is that if we don’t grow at all, we lose legislative representation through reapportionment and lose clout to other parts of the state.
“They’ll decide how we’ll live in Southwestern Virginia.”
Cranwell says the assurance of the arrival of the state park and the new greenway is a help, but that Explore can’t be isolated from the region’s overall needs.
“We’ve got to have something to move us along,” he says. “And tourism sure hasn’t hurt Tidewater or Washington or Williamsburg. Explore, although it’s a local focal point, is not so much the total picture as just a piece.”
He then rattles off a list of people and attractions that could tie the region together as a tourist destination and pull traffic from 1-81 into the Southwest Virginia region.
“The Cumberland Gap has to be an attraction,” Cranwell begins. “Wythe County is the birthplace of Steven Austin, and I think there’s maybe a place named for him down in Texas someplace. Then there’s another Virginian who has a Texas city named after him-Sam Houston I think is the name. Then there’s the Thomas Jefferson summer home. Merriwether Lewis is from Albemarle County, William dark from Caroline County. Danville is the last Confederate Capital. There’s just a lot of history in Southwestern Virginia. You tie all that in with the horse center in Lexington, and Explore and the parkway and you can start pulling people off the interstate.
“Our biggest problem is that we don’t have the Rockefellers to come along and develop things as they did in Williamsburg. We need to be able to articulate the magnitude of the problem to the citizenry. People don’t feel any immediate, excruciating pain-there just doesn’t appear to be anything life-threatening, especially when people see new jobs coming in all the time. But if you project into the future what’s going on today, you can see it won’t be too long before we have two separate Virginias.”
Originally published in the May, 1988 issue of The Roanoker