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Final Plans For Red River Gorge Resort Unveiled

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Stantec
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After a few years of discussion and eight months of consultant work including meetings with many eastern Kentucky stakeholders, a formal proposal for a destination resort project near Red River Gorge has been unveiled.  The final design, as developed by the Stantec firm, was the subject of a virtual town hall Tuesday night.

Stantec Consultant John Bucher began the remote presentation last night with a graphic showing a half million visitors to the region each year.  The tourism strategy aims to use ecologically friendly development to benefit Powell, Menifee, Wolfe, and Lee Counties.  Elmer Whitaker is president and CEO of Whitaker Bank. “It’s exciting to think that we might actually be in a position to not just create growth just in the Slade area, but around the four county region which is areas that need additional tax bases to support the school systems in those areas,” said Whitaker. 

The proposal calls for various infrastructure improvements including flooding mitigation.  Visitors just leaving the Mountain Parkway would see a re-designed rest stop with a natural science center and transit hub to shuttle visitors into the gorge.

Much of the discussion has focused on a proposed high end 170 room lodge, cottages, and limited housing.  Whitaker says the idea would be to supplement the existing state park lodge and facilities. “The intention here is to be responsible in how this is done and not take away from those that would rather come to a lower price point.  Those visitors are going to go to the state park or go to one of the cabin rentals.  But this also lends itself as it grows and develops to allowing more local investment,” noted Whitaker. 

Stantec consultants predict the destination resort along with other amenities would carry an annual $79 million economic impact, creating some 500 jobs, and attracting 31,000 visitors each year.

Red River Economic Development is a non profit created by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to spur economic growth in the region.  It’s comprised of five business leaders with ties to eastern Kentucky and four county judges.  Powell County Judge James Anderson believes the 891 acre tract won’t stay in a natural state. “I want to maintain our integrity and the things that draw people here, but also I’m pretty content and I think it’s next to impossible for anybody to conceive that this particular track of land will not be developed,” said Anderson.

However, not everybody agrees with the proposed transformation of a large natural area.  Kristen Wiley came to the region in 1998 and now is co-director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and a member of the Community group Red River Gorge United.  She worries about rural gentrification with increases in property prices, the environmental impact of additional visitors, and possible adverse effects felt by existing small businesses.  Plus, Wiley says many like the current atmosphere. “A lot of people talk of the gorge in an almost spiritual way like it’s meaningful to them on a deep level and I think those people deserve some consideration and deserve our loyalty in some ways because they really value this place,” explained Wiley. 

Wiley says she appreciates some of the infrastructure improvements such as enhanced parking and efforts to attract people to neighboring counties.  Still, she says an online survey of 472 respondents, most from the area, found the majority didn’t have high marks for a large scale resort or residential community.

Like Wiley, Kentucky Waterways Alliance’s Laura Gregory, a Wolfe County resident, is a member of a local advisory board.  Gregory views the proposal as a good option for the four county area and feels it does take into account the landscape impact. “They also are following state and federal guidelines to stay away from the rock shelters and the cliff line.  Their plan sets 200 feet away from that.  Their plan is great, but whether or not the developer will do the plan is the concern, with no planning and zoning,” said Gregory.

Former Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Dave Adkisson is Red River Economic Development Project Manager. With the formal unveiling of the proposal last night, He says the effort to attract investors starts today.   Adkisson says it’s not likely a developer will make a full investment, but instead, he thinks it will involve a group of backers.“If we can put together a consortium of investors, that group would then go out and look for a developer, perhaps through an RFP process, requests for proposals.  So we got our work cut out for us,” said Adkisson.

Previously giving the proposal a 50-50 chance of panning out, Adkisson says local backing coupled with tourism incentives put the odds now at 60-40.

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