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Opinions Vary About Red River Gorge Economic Development

Red River Gorge Tunnel
Stu Johnson
Red River Gorge Tunnel

The Fourth of July holiday provides an opportunity to take in a scenic spot in Kentucky. For many that might be traveling to the Red River Gorge region for a few days of camping, hiking, kayaking. And all that activity has an economic impact. Development has been an often debated matter when it comes to the internationally recognized natural attraction.

It’s a Monday morning, but it’s also June at the Daniel Boone Coffee House in Slade Kentucky. And being the summer season, about ten people are waiting to place their order. Further back in the gift store area, Jason and Susan Dailey are first time visitors at the Gorge, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They were scheduled for an underground excursion on a see-through kayak. Jason said balancing economic progress with maintaining natural beauty has no clear cut answer.

“Yeah, I don’t know what that line is between development…obviously the draw here is the natural resources… but you have to accommodate the people.. that want to come and see it…I don’t know where you draw the line,” said Dailey.

Both Jason and Susan say they were somewhat surprised there weren’t MORE tourists at the Gorge when they arrived on a weekend. When considering a spot to celebrate 30 years of marriage, Susan said she had looked into bus tour packages out west.

“And that’s what I thought this would actually be amazing for..cause they could plan things and you’ve got two or three days where you could have relaxation…a planned stop at the different state parks in Kentucky would be an amazing trip and something that I would do,” said Dailey.

Mark Pywell-Annie Neiheisel
Stu Johnson
Mark Pywell-Annie Neiheisel

In line to order at the Gorge coffee shot were Mark Pywell and Annie Neiheisel. Pywell, from England, and Neiheisel from Lexington, recently got engaged. She said she wanted to show him “Natural Bridge”, as she put it “a very Kentucky thing to show someone.” And although it's a warm day, Pywell welcomed it.

“We felt like coming and seeing some sort of more natural stuff because we’ve been into the City..we’ve been up to Cincinnati as well, but we just wanted to come and see some of the more natural sites,” said Pywell.

Not everyone who comes to the land of trails, creeks, and cliffs is seeking time on these very attractions. Hailey Needham sat with her friend Kim Conn outside, drinking coffee. Needham said it was the third time in a week.

“And what do you do primarily when you come?...eat, get coffee, shop, look around, see the sights, people watch. What about hiking or kayaking?.. I have done that before..yes..occasionally,” said Needham.

The whole Slade, Natural Bridge, Gorge area could be in for some big changes in the years ahead. There are still efforts to make the Red River Economic Development, first officially proposed in the spring of 2021, a reality. The plan includes construction of a destination resort…170 or more room lodge, cottages, on-site distillery, and restaurant all linked to nature trails. Proponents of the proposed resort are still working to put together the necessary finances for the project.

Red River Gorge United is a group of local community members expressing concerns about the high-end resort. RRGU member Jonathan Hicks said it’s important for investments to create local benefits.

“We make sure that at the end of the day this is a better place because we have invested here and that we’re not just taking money out like an ATM machine,” said Hicks.

Jonathan Hicks
Stu Johnson
Jonathan Hicks

Hicks said the interest in keeping up infrastructure needs with Gorge preservation a key element of any plan. As he puts it, “everyone wants more people, more revenue, but there needs to be an equal investment in the infrastructure…water, sewer, roads…

“If you drive around the Gorge, roads are always in disrepair because it’s really difficult to upkeep them when the Red River floods etc, etc. So, you’re always seeing roads that are sinking in. And so, yeah, we can love this place to death.,” said Hicks.

Hicks runs Red River Gorge Cabin Company. He brought his family to the Gorge from Cincinnati more than a decade ago. His company has ten cabins and Hicks says the off-season has shrunk from Nov through March to Dec through Feb. Although his business is visitor focused housing, Hicks said the vast increase in short-term rentals is concerning. And that includes those seeking to live and work in the area.

“Even if you’re making 15 an hour, it’s very difficult to find any kind of housing in the peak season here. So, I’m sometimes get someone saying like hey do you have a place to rent long term and I’m like it will be at least three or four thousand dollars a month. So, there’s just no..there’s a housing crunch for the workers who come here,” said Hicks.

With the growing number of cabin rentals it does create a need for workers. Kevin Smith is in cabin maintenance. He says cabins are going up everywhere. Is it too much? Tough to say according to Smith, but for him, it’s meant working near home.

Kevin Smith
Stu Johnson
Kevin Smith

“Little of both I guess. Something to get adjusted to. It’s a lot of work, I guess. Used to when we was younger we had to ride two or three counties over to go to work now we right here…working at home,” said Smith.

On that same Monday around the noon hour there was bustling activity at Miguel’s Pizza and Rock Climbing Shop, a staple in the Gorge since 1984. Miguel’s General Manager Mark Ventura said an already popular business has seen more visitors the last few years.

“I mean, since COVID, the whole area has just been overrun with city folks and everybody wants to get out. I think it just exposed more people to the outdoors in general,” said Ventura.

As it relates to the proposed destination resort in the Gorge, Ventura noted it seems like a question of when and not if. He bases that partly on infrastructure improvements being seen now. Ventura added there’s been what he termed a big fiber internet push into the area.

“They’ve been replacing all of our electric poles and all that kind of stuff that goes into having to support such a big investment. I think the next thing they’re going to have to work on is water,” said Ventura.

Mark, the son of the pizza spot owner Miguel Ventura, said the need for an ample water supply may be the hardest thing to fix.

The Mountain Parkway is a main route into the Red River Gorge. Right off the Parkway is the Slade Visitors Center. Powell County Tourism Director Pete Fingerson offers assistance at the desk. He agrees that keeping up when it comes to infrastructure has its challenges.

“We have a huge influx of cabins and cabin owners coming into the area from out of state, which is great on one hand but on the other hand a lot of our resources, like water for example, a couple of the water companies even shut off even doing any new water meters that kind of thing for a little while just because they don’t the capacity for more cabins,” said Fingerson.

Pete Fingerson
Stu Johnson
Pete Fingerson

Fingerson said he’s in full support of sustainable, organic growth. The tourism leader added, “we don’t need another Gatlinburg.” Fingerson says there has been increases year over year of visitors logging in at the Slade center. That number was 26,000 last year and he says everything’s on track to break 30,000 this year. Still to be determined, though, is how the popular Red River Gorge area experience will change in the years to come.

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Stu has been reporting for WEKU for more than 35 years. His primary beat is Lexington/Fayette government.
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