By Carolyn Holtzman

Thomas Jefferson’s vision for Natural Bridge is finally coming true, thanks to Angelo Puglisi.

Jefferson, who once owned the Rockbridge County landmark, saw his ownership “in some degree as a public trust.”

Puglisi, the man who sold it Feb. 6, shared Jefferson’s vision. By the terms of the deal Pulisi worked out with the new owner Tom Clarke, Natural Bridge will become a state park, the first time since the 18th century that it will be in public hands.

“Thinking about what Jefferson said about it being in the public trust, it seemed like the right thing to do,”

Clarke said Wednesday. “We probably wouldn’t have bought it if we hadn’t seen so many people so passionate about it.”
Puglisi had owned and operated Natural Bridge since 1988. Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter said the sale would not have been so successful without Puglisi.Clarke established the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund to buy most of the nearly 1,600-acre Natural Bridge property from Puglisi for $8.6 million. But Puglisi gave the bridge itself and nearly 200 surrounding acres to Clarke’s new group in return for about $7 million in tax credits.

“Mr. Puglisi clearly demonstrated his patriotism and dedication to maintain the Natural Bridge,” Suter said. “He could have gone out and sold it to the highest bidder.”

Suter said he was impressed by how Clarke handled the sale.

“He is really a visionary,” Suter said. “He stepped in and saw what the bridge had to offer and capitalized on that for the county and for all of us.”

The conservation fund plans to hand most of the 1,600 acres, including the bridge, over to the state after it pays off a $9.1 million loan it received through a state agency. Clarke hopes to pay off the loan by the end of 2015. But the hotel, gift shop and wax museum will stay under the conservation fund’s ownership.

Clarke is working closely with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to get the area ready to become a state park. DCR Public Relations Manager Gary Waugh said Clarke and DCR were keeping the local community in mind.

“We are trying to make sure attractions we put in the state park would be complementary, not competition to the surrounding area,” Waugh said. “We are staying with traditional state park offerings, like what kinds of trails, campsites or camp grounds we could have, or if it would be suitable for family rental cabins.”

Clarke said he has many ideas for the future of Natural Bridge.

“I’d like to rebuild Stonehill lodge and some more traditional sites and locations so that Natural Bridge will once again be that tourist destination,” he said. “Ideally we’d like to connect Natural Bridge to the James River. It would be great to be able to go canoeing and kayaking and horseback riding all in one location.”

The bridge and hotel have been closed since January to allow for the change in ownership. Both are scheduled to reopen in March.

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