Developing Red River Gorge

A proposed destination resort has Red River Gorge residents concerned, but the question isn’t if RRG will be developed, but how.

With his steely blue eyes focused on the omelette in front of him on the picnic table, Dario Ventura recalls childhood hikes with his siblings in Red River Gorge. Back then, they rarely saw a soul on the trails and felt like they had the place to themselves. It was the 1990s, and the eastern Kentucky oasis was off the beaten path—a place you learned about through word of mouth.

Photograph by Lance Adkins

“If it was a gorgeous Saturday at the right time of the year, yeah, there’d be people out, but not even close to the scale it is now,” says Ventura, now in his mid-30s. We’re sitting outside of Miguel’s Pizza, the restaurant his parents opened in 1984, the year of his birth. He’s spent his whole life in “The Red,” as rock climbers from around the world call it, or “The Gorge,” as backpackers and day hikers call it.

The wilderness area attracts roughly 750,000 people a year to hike, camp, or climb in the breathtaking natural setting of sandstone arches, cliff lines, rock shelters, and waterfalls. The Red River and its headwater creeks teem with swimming holes and trout fishing opportunities. Summer vegetation is lush, and fall colors astound. Cliffs and caves drip huge icicles in the winter, and then the area comes alive in the spring with a chorus of frogs and delicate wildflowers. It’s all protected by a series of environmental designations, including a Wild and Scenic River status provided by Congress in 1993.

In more developed parts, you can take a ski lift (very cool, actually) to stand atop Natural Bridge for a 360-degree view of the river gorge that formed roughly 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period. You can also go into “town” to visit a Kentucky snake pit or an aerial adventure park.

“If I think about the Gorge when I was 16, compared to now—and I’m 45—it definitely attracts a lot more people,” says Michael Harr, a Florence resident and creator of the website, which provides reviews of the state’s many options for hiking, including Red River Gorge. “Today, you have to hunt and peck for a camping site. The trails are getting wider, and there’s less vegetation.”

There’s a saying here that the Gorge is being “loved to death.” The area is facing several big developments that locals think, and some fear, will change the place forever. Front and center are plans for a $135 million destination resort on nearly 1,000 acres about a mile from the protected wilderness area. Planners liken the concept to French Lick Resort in Indiana, and have drafted a detailed master plan, as well as an economic development and tourism plan for the four-county region.

The U.S. Forest Service has begun the process of making major changes to its outdoor recreation management at the Gorge due to overcrowding. On nice weekends, it can now be difficult to find a single open parking spot in all of the forest.

Activity has definitely been increasing, says Ventura, who reports that business is booming at Miguel’s, where he’s general manager. There are several restaurants to choose from in the area now, and more attractions for adventure seekers, including river and cave canoe and kayak rentals, zip lines, and rock-climbing. He says the number of rental cabins in the area grows by the week. “The secret is out,” Ventura says. “What we’re dealing with are products of our success. Where it used to be hard for businesses to stay open, places are starting to stick and people are starting to buy up every nook and cranny.”

Kristen Wiley is worried what will become of the place she’s called home since taking a job at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in the 1990s. The attraction is open almost daily to visitors, but its primary function is to provide venom for research. With one of the largest collections of venomous snakes in the world, Animal Planet has turned to Wiley or her husband Jim Harrison, the zoo’s founder, for expert knowledge through the years.

Wiley is also board chair of Red River Gorge United, a community-led nonprofit formed to oppose development of the resort. “The Gorge has been growing for the last several years on its own,” she says. “The credit for that growth goes to the people who are already here, and also by chance. Word has gotten out about just how pretty it is here. Ultimately, though, I really worry that the local community will end up being exploited.”

Picture yourself pulling off of scenic Mountain Parkway in eastern Kentucky and skirting around the Slade exit until you arrive at an elegant gatehouse. Cruising through the forest alongside a picturesque creek, the view opens up into a meadow hemmed by a towering cliff line. Nestled in the natural setting is an ecofriendly 170-room resort, where you can enjoy miles upon miles of hiking and mountain biking trails and rock-climbing routes. The site has more than a dozen natural sandstone arches, including the region’s third and fourth largest. There are terraced pools, waterslides, a spa, and a signature restaurant to entertain visitors, and maybe even an amphitheater, a microbrewery, and a distillery.

A rendering of the proposed development

Illustration courtesy Red River Economic Development LLC

The target market for this scenario? Modern adventurers seeking luxury accommodations. “We want to create something that people in downtown Cincinnati will talk about,” says Dave Adkisson, a partial owner of the property. “We want to create a place where Procter & Gamble and Fifth Third Bank want to have their corporate retreats and board meetings. It needs to be of that caliber.”

When the idea of a destination resort in Red River Gorge began to percolate, Adkisson was president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business association. Its charitable nonprofit arm, called the Kentucky Chamber Foundation, first convened a task force to consider economic options for eastern Kentucky in 2013, hoping to create jobs and strengthen the state’s economy.

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

The foundation identified Red River Gorge as the prime location and created a subcommittee called Red River Economic Development (RRED) to apply for grants and to begin inching the idea forward. RRED secured $500,000 from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, which the state government matched with another $500,000.

The general public in Red River Gorge first learned of the plan in fall 2019, says Wiley, when an e-mailed invitation to a meeting about a resort began to circulate. She attended the meeting and was immediately struck by the presenters’ tone. “It was like, We want to help you, you poor little people. We’re going to bring in good jobs. It will be good for you,” she recalls. “I have a master’s degree, and I’m not a stupid person, but I felt very talked down to as part of that audience. I can’t say I’ve felt that as much through the process. Maybe they learned to listen, or they’ve learned to hide their intentions better.”

At the time, RRED was led by a board of managers that included some of the area’s top bankers, business leaders from or still living in the Red River region, and a few of the area’s county judge executives (the highest level of elected county office in Kentucky). After that initial meeting, RRED put together a 12-member local advisory board to solicit public opinion on the plan. Dario Ventura was invited to join, and he immediately saw the potential for the area getting overrun. “What happens when a mega hotel is doing good? Someone will build another one,” he says. “It’s a ripple effect.”

Still, Ventura says he went into the advisory process gung-ho, with another idea for the property—a music venue, sort of like Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in Colorado. “That supports everything here and could make some investors a lot of money,” he says. The further he got into the process, however, the more he realized there was “a bigger wheel turning.” It became clear to him that RRED would not drop the resort concept.

Wiley was also invited to be on the advisory board, as were individuals in the cabin rental business, leaders in local tourism and at health agencies, and environmentalists like Laura Gregory, Red River Watershed coordinator for the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. She moved to the area in 2009 after earning a bachelor’s degree in geography at the University of Texas. She and her husband fell in love with the people, the place, and the pace of life in the Gorge.

When it comes to water quality, the good news is the Red River is pretty healthy, says Gregory, but some of its headwater streams are impaired, meaning they don’t meet all environmental standards. Further development of the area, more people, and more traffic could make it harder to keep everything in good shape, she says.

RRED held an option to buy the nearly 1,000-acre plot of land, which had been cobbled together, parcel by parcel, by Ian Teal, a Cincinnatian in the cabin business. He initially thought of building cabins on the property, according to a video interview with The Lexington Herald. RRED hired Canadian consulting firm Stantec to complete a master plan for the resort and a tourism plan for the region that would not only make the place more welcoming to visitors but also leverage opportunities to add jobs, education opportunities, and infrastructure improvements. They consulted dozens of people, organizations, and businesses in the Red River Gorge and held a series of public meetings.

Photograph by Lance Adkins

Corralling so many voices was a highlight of the process, Gregory says. Elected officials heralded the process, noting it was the first time people from across the region had come together to discuss a tourism plan and future development in the Gorge. She feels that RRED leaders and their consultants listened to the local advisory board on some points and that Stantec created a “pretty decent plan,” with environmental standards for construction and thoughtful considerations for the community, including ways to ease flooding issues. She still thinks the resort is too big.

“I have plenty of friends in other parts of eastern Kentucky who say their communities would love a project like this,” Gregory says. “Those areas are more affected by the loss of coal jobs, which much of the funding for this development project came from in the first place.”

Her biggest concern, which is echoed throughout the community, is how the plan will get implemented, because there are no rules for planning and zoning here—no way for anyone to hold a developer accountable. “How will the community and environment handle the increase of visitors regarding wastewater, trash, and search and rescue, which are already really overused,” asks Gregory. “I came here 12 years ago, and it’s frustrating for me to hear people who move here and expect the door to close behind them, with no one else allowed in. The Gorge is going to keep growing, but will it be at an organic pace? A pace we can manage?”

The other elephant in the room, locals say, is the community’s mistrust over who will benefit financially from the resort project. Locals repeatedly asked at the public meetings whether the bankers and businessmen on the board would be the ones who would ultimately profit.

“They were very political in their answers,” says Gregory, “like, Well, anyone can put up the money for this. So, we asked if it could be organized as a community cooperative resort.” The Gorge has always been grassroots, she says, with an all-volunteer search and rescue team and local organizations maintaining and rebuilding trails. That everyone could get a cut was wishful thinking, though, she says.

In March, the property was purchased for $2.25 million by a group of investors that includes two founding members of RRED (Charles Beach III, CEO of People’s Exchange Bank in Winchester, and Elmer Whitaker, CEO of Whitaker Bank) as well as Adkisson, who retired from the chamber and became RRED’s project manager.

Adkisson contends that there is nothing nefarious about the property purchase and that it was done “sacrificially.” The day before RRED’s option to buy the property was set to expire, a group of project supporters banded together to buy the property and keep the plan alive. “We hope to find a developer who will buy the property and recover our investment,” he says in a Zoom interview. “Our goal is to hold onto the property up to three years. If we can’t sell it, we will auction it off. Nobody has a majority interest, and, in our bylaws, no one can buy a majority interest.”

Photograph by Lance Adkins

Beach and Whitaker stepped down from the RRED board to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, but because Adkisson is now volunteering for the nonprofit and is no longer paid he’s been advised that he does not have a legal conflict and can stay involved. “We don’t want to leave the impression we have our hand in the till here,” says Adkisson, who points out that without planning and zoning rules the property could just as easily become a pig farm or a stone quarry. The property’s new owners, he says, have literally bought more time to find a developer to build something along the lines of the master plan.

RRED has been flexible and accommodated community requests, according to Adkisson. It quickly dropped an unpopular idea to include a casino, and the resort plan takes up just 8 percent of the property, leaving the rest as conservation-access land and preserving the natural landscape.

Adkisson wants to dispel a rumor that he bought an adjacent 500-acre property, saying, “I have not had nor plan to have any other investments in the area, though I do occasionally buy a pizza at Miguel’s. Red River Gorge is going to grow regardless. They could all close their doors, and it would continue to grow because of its reputation and beauty. Some of the stakeholders are hesitant, of course, but if you went and talked to the graduating class of Powell County High School about 500 jobs being created, they’d probably hug you.”

Wiley remains wary. “I do have some real questions about forming a nonprofit, getting $1 million from state and federal government, and then benefitting from that,” she says. “It feels wrong. I can think of a lot of uses for $1 million that would benefit the people of these counties tomorrow. It’s disappointing that the one little corner of the world I chose to be in may fall to the kind of exploitation that seems to happen to a lot of beautiful places.”

The three-year countdown is now on to find a developer. Adkisson says the local advisory board will be asked to continue working with RRED, which is no longer part of the Kentucky Chamber Foundation but a stand-alone nonprofit. Its board of managers doesn’t include any investors now, he says, and the group is committed to working with the public and local government to get something built that will serve the area’s citizens.

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

Red River Gorge United no longer considers itself an opposition group, says Wiley, but instead is working to find the best way to influence and limit any negative impacts a big resort might have on the community. And one of the county judge executives in the area has suggested area residents get involved in local government by pushing for some sort of checks and balances on area development.

“It’s a balance between providing high-level recreation for all who love the Red River Gorge but also protecting the archeological, geological, botanical, and wilderness aspects that make it so unique,” says Tim Eling, a supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service who has worked in the area for 16 years. Proposed changes include designating all official backcountry campsites, creating a reservation system for both backcountry and car camping, and expanding the official trail system.

Wiley and others say it’s a good thing the Forest Service is taking steps to curb overcrowding, like adding parking and possible shuttle service and expanding trails. It should help reduce the impact of an additional 90,000 annual visitors, which is what resort planners estimate they’ll bring in.

Gregory hopes the RRED process won’t be the last the community hears of regional tourism and economic development efforts. Ideas like a proposed one-stop-shop adventure hub at the Slade exit where visitors can book adventures, catch a shuttle, or hike new trails connecting the area’s small businesses and attractions are much needed—but so are the creation of a local business incubator and more educational, career, and healthcare opportunities. RRED identified local tourism directors, elected officials, and business leaders as ambassadors for the resort plan to help move it forward.

Back at Miguel’s, Dario Ventura worries most about people in the community who the development might eventually price out, either when their land becomes more valuable, they sell and move, or their rent becomes too high to stay. Rural gentrification, some around the Gorge call it. There’s already a shortage of service and hospitality workers in the area, Ventura says, and little to no affordable housing available for them.

His father, Miguel, sits nearby in the sun after making the day’s pizza dough. The family patriarch recently bought some more land in the Gorge that he plans to preserve. He encourages anyone who wants the place to remain a shadow of itself to do the same.

Perhaps a destination resort will just polish the area up a bit and leave it mostly intact, someone suggests. “It doesn’t need polishing,” Miguel Ventura says. “You can over-polish something and ruin the natural beauty.”

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