By Hendley Badcock and Lindsay Cates

Natural Bridge has a new owner.

Tom Clarke, CEO and founder of Kissito Healthcare, a Roanoke-based nonprofit company, finalized the purchase Thursday morning.

A Kissito subsidiary Clarke established, called the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, is listed as the purchaser of nearly 1,600 acres that include the landmark that gives Rockbridge County its name. Clarke’s intention is to turn the bridge over to the state park system.

Clarke said he began communicating in October with Washington, D.C.-based real estate developer Angelo Puglisi, who had owned Natural Bridge since 1988.

Puglisi sold the entire property for $8.6 million, a fraction of its estimated value of more than $40 million. It includes a hotel, gift shop and several other buildings. Puglisi also received $7 million in tax credits.

“Everyone is thrilled and relieved,” said Faye Cooper, director of the Valley Conservation Council. The council had joined other Rockbridge area conservation groups and local governments in trying to facilitate an agreement that would put Natural Bridge in public ownership for the first time.

Clarke said he intends to hand the property over as a state park, but he first wants to pay off the debt he incurred in making the purchase. He said donations and income from visitors to the bridge should help the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund get to that point by 2015.

Cooper said Natural Bridge, which has been closed for more than a month, is expected to open again in March.

Cooper said she hopes Natural Bridge, once owned by Thomas Jefferson and surveyed by George Washington, will become a cornerstone of the state park system.

Associated Press also contributed to this story.

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