Linda Blackford

A 900-acre ‘destination resort’ at Red River Gorge? Officials should move very slowly.

A plan to develop a ‘destination resort’ near the Red River Gorge could be a game-changer for the post-coal economy of Eastern Kentucky, but one of our state’s greatest natural jewels is also at stake.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is behind the still-developing plans for the 900-acre project, complete with convention space, private cabins, a water feature, a themed village and even some gambling options — that would be built near the Red River Gorge as a tourist attraction and gateway to Eastern Kentucky.

The Chamber has long been looking at ways to rejuvenate Eastern Kentucky as coal slowly disappears. The Chamber formed a non-profit group, the Red River Economic Development LLC headed by four bank chairmen and three county judge-executives who represent the Gorge area. According to documents, RRED has an option on 891 acres close to the Slade exit off the Mountain Parkway, close to the Natural Bridge State Park, owned by businessman Ian Teal.

Chamber President Dave Adkisson said after numerous tourism studies, officials concluded the Gorge area made the most sense because of its proximity to big cities and major interstates. He said there was about a 50-50 chance the project would come to fruition.

“There’s nobody sitting out there with blueprints ready to pour concrete,” he said. “It’s all speculative, we hope we can do something positive in the region.”

The entire project is seen as a public-private partnership that would incorporate Natural Bridge State Park. Other amenities would include a 150-175 room lodge, 12,000 feet of convention space, private cabins, an indoor recreational feature such as a rock-climbing wall, a swimming pool, wedding venues, a restaurant, a brew pub or bourbon distillery, a residential community with privately-owned houses and a themed village sitting right off the highway that could serve as a gateway to Eastern Kentucky.

RRED put out an request for proposal for firms to design a development master plan, including a public engagement component, which was judged in Lexington last week. Adkisson said the firm will be selected by Oct. 31. The Powell County Tourism Commission is also meeting on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Natural Bridge Woodland Center to discuss the proposals.

Powell County Judge Executive James Anderson, who serves on the board of RRED said that people are starting to get needlessly alarmed through rumors and other innuendo.

“If this were to go forward, there would be plenty of public input,” he said Wednesday. “You can’t help but be excited, but at the same time we’re concerned about the negative effects this could have on our environment.”

Let’s hope he means it. Yes, Eastern Kentucky needs economic renewal, and the Red River Gorge could be part of that. But it’s also one of Kentucky’s most important and fragile spots, and it’s in danger of being loved to death by hikers and climbers who want to be part of its stupendous natural beauty. Bringing in thousands more people each year could be problematic. Officials need to move very, very slowly. While the plan hasn’t been a secret exactly, it also hasn’t been publicized at all.

Adkisson said the group didn’t know it had a project until last week when it received a $500,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and a matching grant from the state to pay for the master plan.

“Our motivation is economic development and jobs” Adkisson said, but the master plan also calls for protecting the natural environment, including sustainable development. The master plan will have to determine how to make sure the Gorge isn’t damaged by more tourists.

Linda Blackford Charles Bertram

But Sara Day Evans, founder of Accelerating Appalachia, said she found out about the plans on Monday, and was one of many people who hadn’t heard anything about it.

“Pretty much everyone I reached out to, including the Sierra Club, Kentucky Resources Council and Powell County Tourism Commission, had not been informed,” Evans said. “As far as I can tell, they haven’t had any public meetings, they have developed a pretty extensive proposal without any public engagement, specifically the folks who live and work and run businesses at the Red River Gorge.”

The Red River Gorge is precious to many people who live near it, and many people who don’t. It came under attack in the late 1960s when both federal and local officials wanted to dam the Red River to create a giant lake and stop flooding. Stopping that idea was one of the greatest victories of the early environmental movement. Any plans moving forward should include lots of public discussion about the future health of the area, both economic and environmental. Ecotourism in Kentucky holds a lot of potential, but it must be done right.

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.