Planning consultants for a group of eastern Kentucky business and community leaders unveiled a comprehensive tourism strategy for the Red River Gorge region during a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday night and proposed a 4 1/2-star destination resort as an anchor for future economic growth in the region.
Red River Economic Development, LLC (RRED) sponsored the planning process with a combined $1 million federal-state grant and hired the consulting firm, Stantec, to produce the plan. A local advisory board consisting of 15 area small business owners, environmentalists, rock-climbers, hikers, cabin owners and three county judge-executives met monthly with Stantec’s planning team and provided local input.
While the original planning process called for community forums and workshops to gather ideas, only two public meetings were held before COVID-19 restrictions halted in-person meetings. The pandemic delayed the planning process for two months while planners developed an alternative plan for public engagement. RRED agreed to host four virtual town hall meetings and Stantec created a dedicated website for gathering ideas and comments.
According to County Judge-Executive James Anderson, the planning process brought together area business leaders and public officials to balance economic growth and environmental protection. “Virtually everyone wants more economic opportunity and jobs so our young people can stay and raise their families here, and everyone wants to protect the natural environment that makes our region so unique and popular”, according to Anderson.
According to Lee County Judge-Executive Chuck Caudill, the possibility of a top-notch resort will attract a lot of attention but the economic benefits of tourism growth in the entire region will need equal attention. Caudill noted that in Beattyville and Lee County, “We have the Kentucky River that could become the focus of activities that tourists in the Gorge area could access for kayaking, boating, and hiking.”
According to Charlie Beach, RRED chairman, chairman of People’s Exchange Bank and former eight-term mayor of Beattyville, “I’m really proud of the way the local advisory board rolled up its sleeves and helped guide this planning process. While a developer has not been identified, we now have a plan that we can talk to people about and see if we can create enough interest to develop a resort that is nicer and more exciting than anything Kentucky has ever seen.”
The regional tourism plan for Lee, Menifee, Powell and Wolfe County calls for the development of various tourism attractions, an integrated trail network, a four-county tourism coordinating group, joint marketing of the Gorge area and the creation of environmental and cultural protectionsfor an area immediately surrounding the geologically designated Red River Gorge.
The proposed destination resort is recommended as a high-end, 4 1/2-star resort that would include a 170-room lodge with a full-service spa, a full-service restaurant, a distillery and/or brew pub, conference facilities, a “gathering lawn” for outdoor events and live performances, an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, villas and a limited number of private residences.
The proposed location is a privately-owned 891-acre site on the Mountain Parkway at the Slade exit. It lies outside the Red River Gorge Geological Area and is outside the land of the Daniel Boone National Forest that is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. According to Stantec, the resort would create a total of 500+ jobs (300+ on the resort property and 200+ “spin-off” jobs created in the surrounding area).
Preliminary cost estimates for the resort are in the $135 million range, with about 1/3 of that for infrastructure improvements. According to RRED Board Member Elmer Whitaker of Whitaker Bank, a project of this size and complexity will require the cooperation of business people, local tourism boards, county governments and state and federal officials. “The economic benefits that will spill out into the entire Red River Gorge region and the Commonwealth will be significant. But none of us can make this happen on our own. It will take unprecedented cooperation between the private business community and government at all levels.”
Congressman Hal Rogers and Congressman Andy Barr, whose adjoining districts include the Red River Gorge region, released a joint statement Tuesday, calling for a cooperative effort to move forward with the plan as a roadmap for the future. “This is an opportunity for the Red River Gorge to serve as a natural gateway to eastern Kentucky from population centers in Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati and beyond. Regional attractions ranging from elk-viewing to rafting, and from wildlife excursions to camping can all grow as eastern Kentucky emerges as a popular tourist destination.” Various state and federal officials have been briefed on the project in recent weeks.
According to Powell County Tourism Director Miranda Fallen, “I’m excited about this amazing opportunity for our region. Tourism, without sacrificing environmental integrity, is a positive growth engine for the Red River Gorge area. I look forward to working with my counterparts at the other tourism boards to create much-needed jobs. If we do this right, we can become a model for the nation in balancing our top two priorities.”
The Stantec report has been posted on RRED’s project website, www.redriverky.com and includes a detailed report on existing conditions for tourism in the region, the Tourism Strategy and Destination Resort Masterplan and specific reports on topics such as infrastructure and tourism incentives that might apply to the implementation of the plan.
From Red River Economic Development