Last year, about 18 months ago, new owners took over Natural Bridge south of Lexington with plans to revive the the place called on one the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.”
Now the plan, which included turning the attraction into a Virginia State park is in trouble with debts piling up and the sewage treatment plant is malfunctioning.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation says the plan to transfer 180 acres, including the Natural Bridge itself, is “under review.”
Tom Clarke, President and CEO of Kissito Healthcare, a Roanoke County-based nonprofit, is the current owner of Natural Bridge admits what he calls “shortcomings in planning and execution” since taking over the Rockbridge County attraction.
Clark created another nonprofit umbrella called the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, to administer the “for profit” companies that actually own Natural Bridge and VCLF CEO Jennifer Bell says Kissito still has much to learn about running a roadside attraction.
Buying Natural Bridge meant assuming some $400 million in liabilities from Patriot Coal Company of West Virginia and VCLF is also behind on payments on a $9.1 million loan from the Virginia Resources Authority to help pay for the purchase.
VCLF owes $150,000 in back taxes for real estate, business licenses, lodging and back taxes and the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center is arrears in $106,465 in real estate taxes.
A big stink in Natural Bridge’s problems comes from the attraction’s sewage plant, which is discharging wastewater with 19 times chlorine than the law allows.
A contractor holds a $1.07 million mechanics lien on the hotel along with Black Dog Salvage of Roanoke, which filed a $27,250 lien owed for installing a new bar there.
What happened? Bell says tourism is off at the attraction with visits down 10 percent for the bridge itself, 24 percent for the caverns and gift shop revenue off by 43.5 percent.
Natural Bridge fell behind in payments for roadside billboards and visitors to the area no longer see signs urging visits to the attraction.
Recent visitors say Natural Bridge just ain’t what it used to be.
“It’s run down and it looks worse for wear,” says Jennifer Akers of Columbus, Ohio, who said she and her husband came for a visit recently but said they don’t plan to come back.
Tom Billings of Jefferson City, Missouri, says he went to college at Washington and Lee University 35 years ago and remembers when Natural Bridge was a “must see.”
“No more,” he says. “It looks more like a tourist trap now and a bad one at that.”