A large industrial park in Bell County that never attracted a factory will be repurposed as the site of a wildlife center that could be a key tourism attraction, according to local officials.
The Pine Mountain Regional Industrial Development Authority has agreed to sell 750 acres to the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation for $750,000, said Mike Bowling, a Middlesboro attorney who chairs the authority.
The authority bought the site for $850,000 in 2001 from Asher Land and Mineral, using money from a tax on mined coal, Bowling said.
The state spent several million dollars on a bridge across the Cumberland River to the site and on other infrastructure.
The land, which had been surface-mined, is off U.S. 119 between Pineville and Harlan.
The foundation plans to develop a campus that would include a conservation center with natural history and taxidermy displays, a theater, a local artisan market, research and conference space, and an astronomy pavilion, according to its website.
"It's really a unique thing," Bowling said. "We're excited about it."
The plan envisions elk-watching as a key attraction, but there also are black bears, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and more than 240 species of birds at the site, according to the foundation.
Plans for the center include butterfly and pollinator gardens, bird-watching trails and a scenic 15-mile loop road.
"The views from this place are just spectacular," said David Ledford, the head of the foundation.
The idea for the center is modeled on an elk-viewing center in Pennsylvania that had more than 400,000 visitors in 2014, according to the foundation.
Ledford said he thinks the center in Bell County will draw more visitors because it will be larger and have more activities, and is only about 7 miles off busy U.S. 25E.
Being relatively near the Great Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee, which draw millions of visitors a year, also will help, local officials say.
The foundation projects the wildlife center will build to annual visitation of nearly 600,000 in 2021, adding tens of millions to the economic impact of tourism in the region.
Ledford said that in addition to the land the foundation plans to buy, he is working to secure a long-term lease from the Asher company for 12,000 adjacent acres for the driving loop, hiking trails and research areas.
The decision to use the site for tourism instead of industry reflects the difficulty some Eastern Kentucky counties have had attracting manufacturing jobs.
When the site did not attract industrial development after years, officials pursued other projects, including a coal-fired power plant, but nothing panned out.
The site was used for all-terrain vehicle trails and gatherings, but some local residents had called the bridge connecting the site with U.S. 119 the bridge to nowhere.
No more, Bowling said.
"After all these years, the bridge to nowhere finally goes somewhere," he said.
It would not have been possible just a few years ago to sell the site for a tourism project, because people were still focused on trying to attract industry, Bowling said.
But a steep slide in coal jobs heightened the need to think about different kinds of solutions.
The coal industry in Eastern Kentucky has shed half its jobs in recent years because of factors including competition from cheap natural gas and cheaper coal, as well as tougher environmental regulations.
Bowling said the decision to sell the industrial site "shows that people in Eastern Kentucky are really thinking outside the box" in looking for ways to revive and diversify the economy.
The Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative also played a key role, Bowling said.
After investing millions of dollars in the site for industrial use, the state wouldn't have allowed the authority to convert it to a tourism venture without the initiative, he said.
Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, started SOAR in 2013 to look for ways to improve the economy and quality of life in Eastern Kentucky after the sharp drop in coal jobs.
Bob Stewart, secretary of the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said in an email message that the cabinet supported the proposal to create a wildlife center.
The Appalachian Wildlife Foundation plans to build the center using donations, without public money.
The foundation has commitments for the $750,000 to buy the industrial land and has started raising money to build the center, Ledford said.
Ledford said he expected to complete the purchase of the land this year and start construction within two years, with plans to open in 2018.
It will cost an estimated $25 million to $29 million to fully develop the center, he said.
Bowling said the deal to sell the land gives the foundation five years to substantially complete the wildlife-center project.
The authority retained the right to buy back the land if that doesn't happen, Bowling said.