(Originally posted on Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, May 8, 2009)
I have just had time to review the promotional video for the proposed “Blue Ridge America” project that Florida-based developer Larry Vander Maten is planning for a site just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, at what has for the last decade or so been known as Virginia’s “Explore Park.” This site, unlike other locations developers might be eyeing, is favored with a special access road that connects it directly to (and really makes it part of) the Parkway.
While the Roanoke Times initially reported that the proposed project was warmly received by Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority board, which controls the Explore site (and has leased it to Vander Maten), and the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors at a presentation on April 28, I was relieved to see that an article two days later noted that some questions were being raised about this preposterous and overinflated plan. Comments on the newspaper’s discussion board also included a number of critiques.
The “Blue Ridge America” resort — complete with luxury spa, “sprawling” riverside village, cable car, swanky hotel, riverside light show pageant, super-big zip line, and golf course — is wildly out of character with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Marketing itself as the “prettiest place on the Parkway,” it would single-handedly redefine what has been for millions of Americans an escape from the “business of life.” This development would implicitly make the Parkway an appalling and sickening promoter for business-driven, man-made extravagance and wealthy self-indulgence. Indeed, the only thing that isn’t new about it is that it represents the latest in a long line of privately-promoted tourism schemes seeking to capitalize on their proximity to America’s most beloved national park site.
Vander Maten admitted as much during his presentation when he noted his hopes to “brand” the site based on its proximity to the Parkway. “That’s the selling experience. . . . I want to take it and make it like a national park on steroids,” the Roanoke Times quoted him as saying.
I’ll be writing more about this in the next little while — there are so many parts of the proposal as projected in the video to take apart that I hardly know where to begin. But the public needs to take a careful look at this before it’s allowed to go forward. With favored direct access to the Parkway, this is a development that could fundamentally change this park and what it’s been about for the last 75 years. Is this the way we want to begin the next 75?