A plan for a resort on roughly 900 acres in Red River Gorge was unveiled this week.
About 100 people filled Woodland Center at Natural Bridge State Park to hear about the proposed project which includes a lodge, meeting space, private cabins and cottages, indoor and outdoor recreation, a restaurant, and an adjacent themed village of mixed use retail.
Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Dave Adkisson said people with Appalachian roots first got together several years ago to work on the project.
“It’s a group of dedicated successful business people from eastern Kentucky who are banding together to say what can we do that would help eastern Kentucky. That’s our primary motivation. How do you create economic opportunity, jobs in a place where kids and grandkids can stay and be near their families when they develop their careers?” said Adkisson
According to information presented at the meeting, the rationale for the project is this: Kentucky has no destination resort, eastern Kentucky is experiencing an economic depression, the region is naturally picturesque, and ecotourism is one of the fastest-growing components of the travel market.
Adkisson noted a themed village could promote other regional attractions like elk-viewing or the Kentucky Wildlife Center under development.
“And you could bring people to a gateway and introduce them to those and entice day trips to some of those activities also. So, the Red River Gorge is not only a wonderful asset that a lot of people want to visit, but it’s also a natural gateway to all of eastern Kentucky,” he said Adkisson.
Adkisson said the intent is not to develop a Gatlinburg-type scene.
Slade Tourism Director Miranda Fallen said such a large development could benefit residents by improving infrastructure and communication technology.
But she said one concern with the project is a possible worker shortage.
“Then you’re going to be competing with the local businesses that are already here and I know that’s a big reason why people come to the gorge is because you have the local and small businesses that do support the area,” Fallen said.
Kirk Gilchrist runs a social media-based hiking club and said he’s hiked 15,000 miles over three decades in the region. He said he doesn’t think the jobs will pay well enough to attract many worker from coal areas where coal is declining.
John Pohlman of Versailles has been hiking the gorge for 50 years. He worries all-terrain vehicles could lead to environmental degradation. Plus he questions how the land will be used.
“Why would you have a 900 acre piece of land right in the middle of the Red River Gorge and also right next to Natural Bridge?” he said. “You have this incredible bridge right next door and the Gorge down the road and they have 900 acres of additional hiking, I don’t get it.”
Aaron Dorsen, who helps manage a small cabin rental company, was among the many business owners attending the meeting, He asked that, if the development comes, consideration be given to alternative energy including solar, geothermal heating, and the use of special lights that minimize glare.
“That would minimize the light pollution typically that you see at resorts and allow people to enjoy the night dark sky, actually see the stars,” said Dorsen.
An overriding theme of the three-hour meeting was giving the local community significant involvement in any development effort. Kristen Wiley helps run Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade. She argues for local investment opportunities.
“Not only could that potentially benefit them in the long run, but that would also benefit the actual investment itself, because then you have local people who actually really care about the success or failure of that resort ,” Wiley said.
Cory Graham and his family have a long history in the region. He said any change is daunting, but to be competitive in today’s economic structure, it’s beneficial to be open minded. Graham isn’t worried the additional bricks and mortar would harm the natural feel of the gorge.
“The eastern part of Powell County is a vast landscape and there’s plenty of room to put things without necessarily piling them on top of the nature that draws people here in the first place,” he said.
Another message emphasized by Adkisson with the Kentucky Chamber is that the project is not a done deal. In fact, he gives it about a 50-50 chance at this point. Hiring a master plan consultant is the next step and could happen in the next couple of weeks. Preliminary work is being funded by a $500,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The state is expected to contribute a similar amount.