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Opinion/Editorial: Natural Bridge protection efforts still are tangled

Opinion/Editorial: Natural Bridge protection efforts still are tangled

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Natural Bridge is in trouble. Again.

The iconic tourist attraction, once owned by Thomas Jefferson, is approaching a debt payment to a state funding authority that it might not be able to cover.

Natural Bridge has gone through troubled times as of late. Efforts have been aimed at saving not only the bridge itself, but also preserving some 1,500 acres of surrounding property in the face of potential development. Although intentions have been admirable, execution of those plans has left a shaky legacy.

Natural Bridge was privately owned for many years, and was protected and operated as the tourist attraction we all know and love. But in the first decade of this century, the owner decided to sell. The recession of 2008 then hit, and no buyers emerged.

A Botetourt-area businessman devised a plan to rescue those assets: He founded a non-profit, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, and raised money to buy the land, bridge and associated amenities — including the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center. Some of the money — about $9 million worth — was borrowed from the Virginia Resources Authority, a state agency that helps fund projects that benefit the public, ranging from broadband to economic development to land conservation.

Plans were for the Natural Bridge and surrounding land to be donated to the state as a park, once the loan was paid off.

That was in 2014. By 2016, the VCLF already was facing possible foreclosure. The foundation apparently underestimated the costs of renovating the hotel, among other difficulties, and defaulted on a loan payment.

Then Virginia took an unusual step. Although the property remains privately owned by the foundation, the Department of Conservation and Recreation assumed operation of the Natural Bridge itself and began running it as a state park.

The hotel remained under the foundation’s management.

The terms of the loan also were restructured to give the foundation an extra 10 years to retire it.

Now a payment of nearly $580,000 is coming up in November, and the state funding authority is concerned that the VCLF won’t be able to make it, according to reporting by The Roanoke Times. The authority also notes that the VCLF has failed to fund a $500,000 reserve account that was supposed to provide resources in case of an emergency such as a possible default.

This all matters, for a couple of reasons.

One, obviously, is that anyone who cares about Virginia should be rooting for the success of one of its most famous symbols and for public access to remain available.

With the state involved, access to the bridge hopefully is assured. But in addition, there is value in preserving the surrounding countryside as well, so that Natural Bridge remains nestled in a rural landscape befitting its majesty.

The second reason, of course, is that public policy and funding also now are wrapped up in the effort to preserve the property. The Virginia Resources Authority has advanced money for that effort; if the loan is not paid back, or is repaid more slowly than expected, then funds remain tied up that otherwise could be deployed to help other projects benefitting the public.

We all want the effort to succeed in its entirety — the continued protection of the Natural Bridge, the preservation of the surrounding landscape, and the prosperity of the nearby hotel. Good intentions have fueled the work, to be sure, but intentions also need to be backed by effective action.

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