By Katie Wildes
The car was slowly making its way through the weeds and up a hill from the Natural Bridge Hotel before it stopped in a grass field.
“It doesn’t look like much now,” said Jennifer Bell of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund. “But it’ll be great.”
This plot of land will soon be the sight of Natural Bridge Hotel’s biomass co-generation boiler.
Bell is chief operating officer of the non-profit Fund, which last year bought the hotel and more than 1,500 acres of land around the Natural Bridge with plans to make it a state park in 10 years. The plan has run into difficulty, missing its Oct. 1 loan payment. But the plans for a green-technology biomass electric generator are moving ahead.
On Sept. 9, the Fund and Natural Bridge won support for the heat and power project from the Rockbridge County Planning Commission. With the recommendation from the Planning Commission for approval, the hotel is hoping to have a renewable-energy boiler in place by the end of next spring.
The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund is a non-profit organization based in Natural Bridge dedicated to conservation, education and outdoor recreation. The combined heat and power project will provide heat, hot water and electricity while being fueled by sawdust, waste wood and switch grass.
“The biomass boiler really fulfills two of our objectives because it allows us to conserve and when all of the visitors come here, we get to educate them about renewable energy,” Bell said.
Not only will this development benefit the hotel and Natural Bridge campus, including the gift shop across the street, wax museum building, the caverns, and the cottages, but the rest of the community will see the advantages as well.
Heat and electricity even in a power outage
As a result of this project, the Natural Bridge Hotel has applied to become a designated Emergency Shelter for the Red Cross. During power outages, the hotel will still be able to provide heat, hot water and electricity to guests.
Financial obligations are tough for the hotel right now. The ongoing renovations throughout the hotel have left Tom Clarke, CEO of VCLF, to deal with over $2 million of debt, including being late on county taxes and fees. VCLF owes $37,670 in real estate taxes. Last May, most improvements to the hotel were finished – the rooms, dining hall and Washington Hall, where conventions, meetings, and parties are hosted.
Despite the current financial hardships, the Fund remains optimistic. Bell, who deals with the project from the property standpoint, explained.
“The initial cost is going to be expensive, but we can recoup our costs is probably five to 10 years. So long term, we really believe it is worth it.”
Working with Bell is a team including those from Lionburger Construction, English Boiler and David Johnson, formerly a worker for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Lionburger Construction, based in Roanoke, has been working on the hotel renovations. It is building the two buildings – one, which will house the boiler and the other, which will store materials such as sawdust and wood chips.
If the financial problems are straightened out, the electricity used by the patrons, employees and tourists will be renewable.
Geoffrey Berg, a hotel patron, came for an overnight visit last November and, with car problems, got stuck a second night. To Berg, a photographer, Natural Bridge gives endless photo opportunities. He came back recently to enjoy those sights and another night at the hotel. “I love it. It’s a good place to stop.”