Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Of Explore Park and Salem Football

There's something weirdly fascinating about watching business opportunities develop in public. My old pal Chris Gladden once used the line "like watching a snake eat a rat" to describe something like Larry Vander Matten's attempts to convince Roanoke County that he knows what he's doing with the Explore Park re-do, or that pro football thingy Salem was--now isn't--involved in.

Vander Matten, who started with a 50-year lease on the Explore property and had it extended to 90 years by a trusting Roanoke County (my wife, Christina, says, "it's like giving a guy a raise for not coming to work"), has been dithering with this thing for a looooooong time. Now he has a dilly of a plan at a dilly of a price ($200 million). But, hey, he may not do it. He'll let us know in a year or so after he's talked to the bank (takes a while; those bank boys are slow).

Here are some highlights of the plan:
  • The new name would be Blue Ridge America (gotta get "America" in there to bring out the "family" element)
  • The park would employ 500 people in the summer and would have accommodations for 700 (including a bunch of people in the 60 tree houses and 100 cabins)
  • It would feature an equestrian center (Christina loves this part), lakes, shops, a golf course, a conference center, spa, and gondolas
  • We're told it would be "eco-friendly"
The park would "be like a national park on steroids," according to designers. Steroids or not, a lot of us in these parts would like very much to see something happening at Explore, which used to be a nice little teaching park where elementary school classes went for the day to see how early American settlers lived. My friend Bill Tanger has suggested that Explore would make a good state park, but my suggestion to him ("Tell that to the Republicans in the House who won't even fund public safety, health and education") is to forget that one, good idea though it is.

Meanwhile, over in Salem, history has been made: football is a failure. In this gridiron-mad little city, the new pro football minor league, in which Salem was to have had a team, has apparently had the air let out of the ball. The league would have charged up to $40 for a ticket (as my Mom used to say, "Who thinks of these things!?!").

This one was called The United National Gridiron League and a letter from the league apologized for the inconvenience of the cancelled season. Didn't inconvenience me; I wasn't paying 40 bucks for a ticket to see a bunch of arrested development, 27-year-old high school heroes hit each over over who gets to keep a ball.

When I first arrived in Roanoke, we had a minor league team called the Roanoke Buckskins. My most vivid memory of the Bucks (other than sportwriter Newton Spencer's burgundy team jacket) was the flood that hit Victory Stadium (no, it wasn't the first one) and wiped out all the team's equipment. Ferrum College divvied up some old practice wear and the Bucks temporarily changed their colors from Redskins burgundy and gold to Panther black and gold. These guys played before dozens of people and most managed to get up and go to work the next day. Most. Some didn't and lost their jobs.

Life in the minors is a tough thing.

1 comment:

  1. The conversion of Virginia's Explore Park to "be like a national park on steroids" is going to turn this little historical theme park into a Dollywood-Silver Dollar City knock-off amusement park in a setting tacked on to the Blue Ridge National Parkway. So instead of the parkway ending in the world of kitsch and tackiness of Pigeon Forge and Cherokee it is going to be attached to its heart. Gone will be the days of the nice little teaching park which benefits elementary school classes because that will bring in enough revenue to the park. Gone will be the days of historical accuracy and period appropriate, living history, and membership in such groups as The Association for Living Historical Farms and Agriculture Museums (ALHFAM). More than likely the National Park Service will close their visitor center at the entrance to the new Blue Ridge America amusement park. The Blue Ridge Town will become a craftsman like village similar to areas found in Dollywood which used to be Silver Dollar City, Rebel Railroad, and Goldrush Junction. Areas of the new park will more than likely be called attractions rather than historical areas. Blue Ridge America will become a pop culture celebration of American history rather than a living history theme park. The people at Colonial Williamsbug have considered Virginia's Explore Park as being yuck-low-class because all of the buildings were more to create the park. So with the coming of Blue Ridge America more than likely they will consider it as being Santa's evil twin or the evil monkey on the back of the Blue Ridge Parkway!