By Carolyn Holtzman
Many changes are taking place at the Natural Bridge and Hotel under new owner Tom Clarke.
“I think what’s changed the most is the mission,” Clarke said. “For us, it’s all about creating public access so more people see the bridge. It’s really about people coming here and leaving better off than when they came here. That better off can be physically, mentally, or spiritually.”
Clarke said he hopes the new emphasis on public access will get more people outside and visiting the bridge, especially children.
“Kids just don’t have any contact with the outside,” he said “They’re inside for most of their lives with electronic [media] and they just don’t have a connection to the outside.”
“I really believe human beings were made to be outdoors,” Clarke said.
Clarke purchased the bridge on Feb. 6 from long-time owner Angelo Puglisi. Since the change in ownership, both the Natural Bridge and Natural Bridge Hotel have reopened, along with a new 3-mile trail to the replica Monacan Indian Village.
Rockbridge Area Conservation Council board member Chris Wise said RACC is pleased with the conservation of the Indian village.
“Many think of the Natural Bridge starting with [Thomas] Jefferson or [George] Washington,” Wise said. “There may not be written record of them, but there is no doubt that the Monacan Indians were in this part of Virginia and it made a big impact on that area. We are very happy that [Clarke] and the state park are interested in keeping open the Monacan village and interpretations.”
Clarke said the property will eventually include 15 miles of trails, birding tours, floral and plant identifications, kayaking, rafting, canoeing, and possible access to the James River. He said he is working with the owner of the Natural Bridge Wax Museum to turn the museum into a location for local artifacts and temporary collections.
Clarke said groups like the Department of Historical Resources have already committed pieces for the museum. The wax museum is privately owned, but Clarke said he plans to operate the museum this summer.
“The guy hanging from the roof won’t be there anymore,” Clarke said. “Even though my 5-year-old son loves it.”
Clarke also said he plans to spend $2.5 million on repairs to the hotel in the next year. Every room in the hotel will be renovated with brand new bathrooms, carpeting, furniture, wall coverings and drapes. The gift shop will also begin selling goods like pottery and food from Virginia.
“I shouldn’t say this and I don’t say it to be disparaging, but there shouldn’t be anything made in China in there,” Clarke said. “It should all be local.”
Clarke said plans also include bottling and selling water from a natural spring on the Natural Bridge property.
Clarke said he hopes to make the Natural Bridge and hotel more environmentally friendly.
“I don’t want to mention words like climate change because those words are too polarizing,” Clarke said. “But every human being understands there’s consequences to our behavior and that the planet has boundaries.”
Clarke said he plans to implement a new energy program at Natural Bridge. The program will include all LED lights, new windows, and a biomass boiler so that all the hot water in the hotel can be generated through burning of biomass, such as grass or wood pellets, on the property.
Wise said the RACC and the Friends of Natural Bridge, a conservationist group that pushed for the property to become a state park, are pleased with Clarke’s conservation efforts.
“I think all the Friends are happy with the outcome of the sale,” Wise said. “I think we are very similar in our outlook on a number of different issues. Mr. Clarke is very cognizant of the need for the state park to have an educational side as well as a recreational side.”
Clarke also said he wants to relocate Route 11, which now crosses directly over the bridge.
“Maybe it’s not doing any harm, but it’s certainly not doing any good,” Clarke said. “My biggest fear is when there’s an accident on 81, all those trucks know to reroute to Route 11. So you’ll have one 53-foot tractor-trailer coming after another crossing the bridge. The weight limit is 20 tons. Those aren’t 20-ton trucks, those can be 25-, 30-ton trucks going across there.”
Wise said he agrees, and said one possible solution could be to construct a new bridge for traffic that goes over the Natural Bridge so that vehicles could use the same route, but not put wear on the structure itself.
“I think the point is, it can’t be doing the bridge any good to have traffic on it,” Wise said. “Route 11 is not the only bypass for wrecks on 81. There is also the possibility of having a bridge span across the Natural Bridge so that cars aren’t driving right over bridge.”
Clarke said he is most looking forward to an upcoming conference the hotel is planning with 350 kindergarten through 12th grade teachers from around Virginia. The conference will focus on how to integrate environmental consciousness into curriculum.
“How can people really care about the planet, unless they understand it?” Clarke said. “And most people don’t. I just want to create awareness.”
Since reopening the Natural Bridge on Feb. 22, the price of tickets has decreased. Both group and single tickets have dropped by $2 to $18.99. If the bridge is turned over to the state, admission to see the attraction is expected to be $3 or $4 per vehicle.
“I know what it’s like for a family with three kids,” Clarke said. “You’re talking $100, and that prevents so many people from coming. So that will be a happy day when it is only $3 a carload.”
The bridge will continue to have an admission fee until the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, Clarke’s nonprofit conservation organization, pays off $9.1 million in loans used to purchase the property.
The Natural Bridge and surrounding property cannot become a state park until the VCLF pays back the loan. Clarke said he hopes to have paid off the debt by Dec. 31, 2015. The hotel property, cottages, and caverns are planned to stay under private ownership by the VCLF if the property becomes a state park.
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Public Relations Manager Gary Waugh said the department will have a lot of work to do before the property can become a state park.
“What the state needs to do before that is make sure we have the staffing in place and that we have operating budget that’s available to manage the property once it is a state park,” Waugh said.
It is still unclear how much extra money the state will have to put into the park once the state takes over management and maintenance of the property.
“Soon we will be developing a master plan for its development as a state park,” Waugh said. “Before we can develop land as a park and get funding to operate it, we have to have a master plan in place.”
Some former Natural Bridge employees were let go during the change in ownership. Clarke said now the Natural Bridge attraction and hotel have 72 employees, about two- thirds of the number in November. Clarke said he plans to have 250 to 300 people employed at the Natural Bridge by this summer in jobs like hotel receptionists, cleaners and cooks.
The Natural Bridge will also continue hiring wildlife biologists to study the caverns, and interpreters to explain the history and experience of the Natural Bridge along the trails.
Clarke said former Natural Bridge employment is not taken into consideration in his hiring process.
“A lot of people have been rehired,” Clarke said. “But here’s what the deal is. Of the staff employees, we just want to hire the best. There’s not like a recall system or seniority. But normally the people that had worked here are so knowledgeable and deeply passionate about the bridge.”
Future of Natural Bridge
Clarke said technology will be a part of the visitor experience at the historic landmark.
“You’ll be able to take your iPhone and scan the barcode and it will tell you about the bridge, it will tell you about the Monacan Village,” Clarke said. “All of our interpretive displays will be multimedia because that is what people are accustomed to now. But we just want to show there’s something more exciting than Angry Birds out there.”
Wise said he hopes the Natural Bridge state park will eventually be larger than the current 1,600-acre property.
“I hope to see the state park as ‘a state park without walls’ so that people who visit Natural Bridge park go to see many other places close by that are worth seeing, thus staying longer in the hotel,” Wise said. “A lot of what Mr. Clarke does until the park gets given to the state will set the tone for what happens when it becomes a state park.”
Waugh said the public will have a big role during Natural Bridge’s conversion into a state park.
“We will have at least two public meetings to see what [locals] want to see at the park, such as what type of programming or what type of facilities,” Waugh said. “We also want to make sure it’s not competing with any private recreational facilities.”
Clarke said he hopes the Natural Bridge becomes a model for private-public partnerships.
“This was a public-private partnership that worked,” Clarke said. “The private sector should not be afraid to work with the governmental sector. They usually have the same objectives anyway.”
More than anything, Clarke said he hopes visitors continue to enjoy the natural landmark.
“Nobody walks under that bridge, walks that trail, without coming away with a sort of renewed sense of awe,” he said.