The Harlan County Chamber of Commerce heard some specifics for a $19 million wildlife center project planned to be built on property across what is commonly known as “Bridge to Nowhere” during a meeting on Wednesday.
Appalachian Wildlife Foundation CEO David Ledford addressed the Chamber during the group’s lunchtime meeting.
“We are developing the Appalachian Wildlife Center in Bell County across the bridge,” Ledford said. “We are purchasing the industrial park and on the property outlined in red we are putting together a long-term lease agreement with Asher Land and Mineral.”
Ledford said the group will be leasing 19 square miles, or 12,000 acres, from the Asher Land and Mineral Ltd.
“Our buildings will be on the industrial park,” Ledford said.
He explained the 19 square miles of property surrounding the area is intended to be used as a tourist attraction. The plan is for visitors to use the area to view elk, bear, birds and scenery.
“Our building will house a natural history museum, a museum of regional history starting with Daniel Boone…and the geologic history of the region,” Ledford said.
He said the building is also intended to house an artisan’s court, food court and classrooms.
“All the things that we would need to deliver a world class conservation education program to students,” Ledford said. “That experience will be on par with the Smithsonian.”
Ledford cited the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette, Pennsylvania as the business model for the planned center. He said the Pennsylvania facility brought in 420,000 visitors in 2014 while only being open 261 days that year.
“Benezette makes Pineville look like a big city,” Ledford said. “It makes Harlan look immense. There are two stop signs in Benezette. The closest big hotel is about 35 miles away. There’s not much there. But, in 2010 this place opened on a 250 acre piece of property with a 8,400 square foot building…their business plan and all the high dollar consultants said by the year 2016 they could hope to have annual visitation of 160,000 people…in 2013 they had 360,000 people. In 2014 they had 420,000. And they hit 400,000 again this past year.”
According to Ledford, the Bell County facility is expected to attract approximately 580,000 by the fifth year of operation due to being open 353 days a year, having a much more convenient location and featuring a larger facility with a multitude of activities for visitors to take part in.
Additionally, the Appalachian Wildlife Center is intended to educate over 100,000 students per year in wildlife and natural resource conservation and management.
According to the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation’s website, the facility is planned to feature a 15-mile scenic loop road for wildlife viewing, a Visitor Center, over 25 miles of foot trails and generate $113 million per year in regional spending as well as creating over 1,800 new jobs.
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley was in attendance and had some comments on the project.
“Today was a good informational session for all of us to learn more about the proposed Appalachian Wildlife Center,” Mosley said. “It sounds like a very exciting venture. Many people, including myself, have hoped for years that something would develop over there across the bridge to nowhere. This is certainly something that has the potential to bring a lot of tourists to our region and employ some people as well. One thing I like about it is the hotels in Harlan are closer to that site than the hotels in Middlesboro, so I think Harlan would stand to benefit greatly from a tourism development on that property.”
More information can be found at the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation’s website at: http://www.appalachianwildlife.com/index.html
The Appalachian Wildlife Center is scheduled to open in 2019.
Reach Joe P. Asher at 606-909-4132 or on Twitter @joe_hde.