VINTON–More and more frequently governments are striving to engage the public and win them over to large-scale projects by soliciting input through community meetings. This brainstorming between planners and the communities involved has worked successfully for local projects including the new Vinton Library, the proposed skatepark, and the downtown revitalization grant.
Planners listen to what the public wants, determine what is feasible within the parameters of the project, and design comprehensive master plans from there.
Roanoke County has been hosting a string of public meetings throughout the valley to develop a Master Plan for Explore Park, beginning with one at the Vinton War Memorial on September 30.
They hope this will lead to a “road map vision for the future,” a site plan, a cost model, a business plan involving public and private investment, and a utilities plan.
In September 2013, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the 99 year lease of Virginia’s Explore Park from the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority (VRFA). For the sum of $1 per year, the County leases the property, which is administered by Roanoke County’s Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department.
A crowd of around 50 attended the community meeting last week in Vinton, ranging in age from boy scouts to the elderly.
Consultant Eric Tamulonis from the landscape architecture firm Wallace Roberts and Todd (WRT), presented an overview of the Master Plan Development process, including a timeline which began in July and will conclude in March 2016. Roanoke County contracted with WRT, Pros Consulting, and Balzer and Associates this summer to develop the Master Plan at a cost of $200,000.
Public meetings will continue throughout October. Using the information gathered at those meetings the preliminary Master Plan and conceptual design will be completed in November, with cost modifications and development of a business plan scheduled for December and January. The final plan will be completed in February and presented to the Board of Supervisors in March.
WRT considers Explore Park to be a “signature park” which can significantly impact the identity of Roanoke County. The county estimates that Explore Park now receives 40,000 visitors each year from the approximately 13.9 million tourists who travel through the region on the Blue Ridge Parkway. They hope build a destination which will attract many more of those travelers.
About $50 million has been invested in Explore Park since it came into existence in 1986, with about $4.5 million coming from Roanoke County and the rest from federal, state, private, and in-kind funding.
The county says that half of that $50 million was spent on land acquisition, the buildings at the park, the roads and trails which remain in use, and the Roanoke River Parkway ( the 1.5 miles which connects the Parkway and Explore Park) representing a still viable infrastructure.
The park covers 1,100 acres–700 in Roanoke County and 400 in Bedford County, with 1.87 miles of the Roanoke River running alongside.
Tamulonis said that Explore Park has spectacular resources to be showcased with its hardwood forests, diverse wildlife habitats, nine tributaries connecting to the Roanoke River, and established trails. It is ideal for outdoor adventure programs. However, there are also economic and demographic challenges to be considered, such as an aging population in the valley.
There are also challenges within the park with steep slopes (a 500-foot grade from river to ridge), a current lack of infrastructure with limited water and sewer services, a sometimes raging river after storms, closure of the Parkway visitor’s center during the winter months, and even closing of the Parkway itself during inclement weather.
But there is also much potential—one key is connecting to the Roanoke Greenway system; another is providing access to the region’s Blueways.
There is also a need to create a plan that will enable Explore Park to pay its way rather than be subsidized by the county taxpayers.
At the meeting, the consultants and representatives from Roanoke County Parks and Recreation, manned four themed stations to speak individually with citizens–Recreational Amenities, Cultural Resources, Infrastructure Amenities, and Natural Resources.
Suggestions for the park plan ranged from adding primitive camping to building parks similar to Dollywood or Pipestem; but for the most part the ideas involved more nature and less amusement park-type entertainment.
Some citizens wanted tent camping; others were interested in cabins or RV campgrounds with showers and restrooms. A group talked up Disc Golf. Ideas for trout fishing, river rafting, swimming, a zipline, a gift shop, a petting zoo, and a dog park were written on Post-it notes and stuck on the park maps.
A whitewater park, ultra-running races, a hotel, and an animal habitat were other suggestions. Some wanted to resuscitate and preserve the historic buildings present within the park, along with Mountain Union Church and Brugh Tavern. There was talk of a bridge connecting Bedford and Roanoke counties at Explore. Others lobbied for an amphitheater or other staging for special events.
Improvements to the roads, water, and sewer were frequently mentioned. One note suggested a shuttle, trolley, or train coming from Roanoke. Another lobbied for a train encircling the perimeter of the park.
Labs and activity centers for education were high on the list of desirable resources. The lists will most likely converge as the meetings continue throughout the county.
Located just six miles from Explore Park, Vinton is hitching its wagon to the Explore Park plan with hopes of increased business, especially with the expansion of the Greenways, the addition of the Blueway boat launch on Third Street in Vinton connecting the town to Explore Park via Tinker Creek and the Roanoke River, and talk of a hotel located in or near Vinton.
Those who live in the Vinton area recognize that the closing of the Parkway during inclement weather is a big obstacle to overcome when plans are drawn for Explore Park, although there is an alternate route via Rutrough Road through Mount Pleasant.
Doug Blount, Director of the Roanoke County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, says that the county recently met with the National Park Service
“We are very optimistic that when the time is appropriate to have year-round access to Explore Park via the Parkway that we will be able to work out an agreement with the National Park Service,” said Blount. “The same applies to the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is budgeted for and operated by Roanoke County. When we are able to build up an increased demand for park usage, programs and activities at Explore Park, we will discuss expanding the operating season of the Visitor Center. We see the Visitor Center as an important venue in our overall vision for the park.”
Supervisor Jason Peters said that the county would like to work something out with the Parkway that would keep it open from Washington Avenue (Route 24) to Route 220.
“I believe it is necessary for the success of this project,” said Peters. “I am sure we will look at all access points and how they can be improved again for the success of the project.”
Complete information on the Master Plan process and access to a public survey are available at www.explorepark.org/masterplan. The Powerpoint presented at each community meeting can be found on the website, also.