LEXINGTON, Ky. – A community debate on how best to attract tourists to the federally protected geologic area of the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky following the announcement of a proposed resort has apparently decreased.
What would you like to know
- Red River Gorge spans 42,000 acres in four counties in Kentucky
- The planned complex costs $ 135 million
- Community contribution and involvement eased tensions between those for and against development
- Nearly 900 acres of land recently purchased for the project
Located at the eastern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest, the 42,000-acre reserve spans four counties – Wolfe, Lee, Powell and Menifee – and has long been a destination for those seeking adventure in outdoors, such as kayaking, hiking, rock climbing and more. A Report of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Calling the gorge the “Gateway to Eastern Kentucky” estimates that thousands of climbers annually visit more than 100 natural arches and 900 miles of sandstone cliffs, generating an infusion of $ 3.6 million in the regional economy.
The planned seaside resort is necessary to increase the number of tourists and the income they bring to the region. The ARC qualifies the Gorge as “under-capitalized” and specifically noting the lack of overnight accommodation. Red River Economic Development LLC (RRED) in September 2020, released a master plan and feasibility study to analyze national and national tourism trends and assess a series of potential tourism development concepts for the gorges region to create jobs and boost the local economy.
Wolfe County Tourism Director Christie Abrams said much of the initial opposition to the project resulted from the timing of the announcement. Yet as time passed and people learned more about the project, much of the opposition waned, including his own.
“The unique situation of this project is what actually brought it to public attention long before these types of projects normally are,” she said. “A lot of people thought that because the grant funding was available, the project itself was further advanced than it actually was. When the project was first announced, there were a lot of people who were quite upset – I was one of them – that we didn’t have all the information. We had information, but it wasn’t all the information, and it wasn’t quite accurate. We had seen studies and surveys, and some of them had comprehensive data that was actually verifiable. “
The 10-year master plan revolves around these main axes:
- Invest in the economic development of the city of the gorge
- Diversify attractions
- Maintenance of regional trails
- Develop a global brand and marketing strategy
These efforts are based on plans for the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified full-service resort complex providing accommodations, conference rooms, adventure centers, trail access and other amenities to serve visitors. When completed, the project is expected to create more than 500 jobs.
Projections also predict to attract over 500,000 visitors, generate over $ 18 million in salaries and over $ 79 million in local economic impact each year.
“Right now, the gorge attracts around 75,000 visitors a year, and those people are hitting an income bracket,” Abrams said. “I know they’re in that range because I know we have properties in the area that rent for $ 400 or $ 500 a night, and they don’t have as high an occupancy rate as the ones that fall between that $ 200 and $ 300 range. I just know in common sense that the more money you earn, the more vacation you take in a year.
“The idea with this resort is that the people who spend the most money don’t want to come to an old rustic cabin. They want the adventure of an old rustic cabin, but they want that old rustic cabin to have Wi -Fi, a heated pool in the back and maybe someone to cook for them. We don’t have that space here in this area. There is nowhere you can come in the gorges and taste champagne, and that’s what this resort hopes to attract all those vacationing folks spending all those big bucks. Yet the truth is, most of these folks will never find their way down their throats because they are not adventurers, they are vacationers who want an adventure.
The RRED master plan highlighted the $ 135 million luxury resort, located about a mile outside of the gorge, with a 170-room lodge, wedding venues, restaurants, a spa and a micro-distillery. The Throat business community has mixed opinions on the plan. Some see the benefits of the resort, and others support smaller-scale growth that protects the culture and ecology of the area.
Tensions within the community resulting from development related to the gorges have already occurred. After the Red River flooded in 1962, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam that would help control flooding and turn part of the gorge into a recreational lake. The project was rejected after protests, but the Red River became the only federally protected site wild and picturesque river in Kentucky.
Resistance at the station was led by the citizens’ group Red River Gorge United (RRGU). The group launched a online petition titled “Save the Red”. Its president, Kristen Wiley, also worked with the University of Kentucky to survey nearly 500 residents and visitors who have expressed concern about the station.
RRGU does not actively oppose the station, but rather strives to ensure that its members participate in its development. The master plan now includes environmentally friendly guidelines, such as prohibiting building within 200 feet of cliffs, protecting natural arches from blasting, and adopting green building practices such as creating of a Starry sky park. The master plan calls for the station to create 300 new jobs and $ 18 million in annual labor income in an area with high poverty rates and jobs needed.
RRED announced last March that it had purchased 891 acres of private land from Ian Teal for the proposed complex for $ 2.25 million, but no developer was found.
The complex could hamper what Wiley calls “unanticipated growth,” adding that the lack of zoning regulations allows the area’s “very independent” residents to do whatever they want with their property.
“People who don’t want a lot of government oversight,” Wiley said. “We’re trying to find ways to monitor without trying to control what someone is doing in their backyard.”
The gorge’s popularity skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as visitors returned to the outdoors as an inexpensive escape from the doldrums of lockdowns and other restrictions. But these tourists have overwhelmed the state forest infrastructure with congested trails, traffic jams and a struggling garbage collection service. Officials announced at the end of 2020 an effort seek new environmental protections for the throat.
An influx of people participating in outdoor activities also means a likely increase in throat injuries, which Wolfe County Search and Rescue chief John May says is already happening.
“I’ve been playing in the Red River Gorge pretty much my entire adult life, so I’ve seen the changes, some good, some not so good,” said May. “We have already seen a dramatic increase in the number of visitors. We’ve also seen a steady increase in the number of rescues we’ve done over the past year, and I can’t say all of these are from the outside. I think people from Kentucky are coming here more than before, which is represented by the number of rescues we do on people who are not necessarily from the North. Yet a large percentage comes from the north.
May said there was concern from a search and rescue perspective about a resort attracting more people, many of them inexperienced in outdoor activities, down the gorge.
“We are all volunteers and we are busy as it is,” he said. “I think we’re already at 33 or 34 saves this year, and we’re only halfway through the season.”
Powell County Tourism Director Miranda Fallen said she had been involved in the resort talks from their inception and was very opinionated and vocal with her thoughts.
“When I got involved in this project, there were a lot of things that I felt our region could thrive on,” she said. “The potential for growing a whole new spectrum of people is the most attractive part from a tourism perspective. From a local perspective, you’re talking about a four and a half star resort that would potentially attract a whole new spectrum of people. On the proposed property you have the exclusivity of the arches and things that you don’t have access to now – it’s not part of the Red River Gorge. One of my complaints about everything is that everyone hears “resort” and “Red River Gorge”, and it looks like we’re going to put a monorail in the Nada tunnel to get there.
The purpose of tourism, Fallen said, is to create growth.
“That’s what we’re here to do, is grow,” she said. “I know a lot of naysayers have said they just want a seat at the table; we just want to be able to control that growth. What I think we have all found is common ground. Everyone says we don’t want it to be a Gatlinburg, but my thing is, we don’t want it to be a Gatlinburg. There is already a Gatlinburg. We want to be ours and we want to keep moving forward on these good things. You already have people from all over the world coming here. So, let’s build on it.