Despite setbacks, plans in the works to increase public access
By: Nicholas Elmes May 2, 2015
Despite a lack of state funding and a continuing discovery of new issues, Hanging Rock State Park and the Friends of Sauratown Mountains (FSM) are working to get parts of the Vade Mecum property open to the public.
Park Superintendent Robin Riddlebarger said they were working on a three-pronged approach to provide limited day access to the property in the near future.
“People have expressed vocally that they want to be able to get in there,” she said, noting that she is currently working with FSM to prepare a proposal for day use that will be sent up the state chain of command for approval. “We will likely know if we can do it in the next month or two.
“The first thing we want to do is see if we can provide a couple of days each month when we will have the trails on the property open to hikers,” she said. “We have identified the usable trails and are working on mapping and blazing those trails. We have to do it in a way that does not drain the staff here in the park, so we are working with FSM to see if they can provide a volunteer to be the point of contact person to open the gate and distribute the maps when it is open.”
“If it gets approved we would pick the days it would be open for the entire year ahead of time so people can make plans to come visit,” she added.
She said they are also working on plans to be able to have the Vade Mecum chapel opened for weddings on the site.
“We would not be able to open the hotel for overnight guests or catering yet,” said Riddlebarger. “But we are wondering if there is smaller scale we could provide for weddings. FSM is exploring the idea of having the chapel open on a donation basis.”
The initial plan would be for FSM volunteers to handle reservations and opening the facility for patrons who wished to use it for weddings.
“We are also exploring the idea of whether or not the rec hall would be open for use as well,” said Riddlebarger.
She said they are also working on plans to offer guided tours of the property for fundraising.
“When we did the initial open house we had over a hundred people show up so the interest is there,” said Riddlebarger. “We have people in FSM who have a lot of knowledge about the property so it would be a good fit. We are also exploring some other ideas for fundraisers and special events on the property.”
Cheshire Hall suffers water damage
Riddlebarger said Cheshire Hall suffered water damage as a result of problems with the sprinkler system during the winter.
“The sprinkler system is a dry system which is not supposed to have water in the lines at any given time,” she said, explaining that the building had been winterized last winter to reduce costs of heating a building that was not currently open to the public. “Apparently, even though it is a dry system, the sprinkler system gets condensation in it through natural temperature changes. So during the winter, water collected in one pipe that froze and cracked. The sprinkler system thought there was a fire so it released the water which flowed through the floor and down the stairs.”
Riddlebarger said the system released 20,000 gallons of water into the building and that park staff had responded quickly to minimize long-term damage.
“We removed the wet carpet and wet ceiling tiles as quickly as we could,” she said. “We ran industrial fans to air out the building and had a professional team come up and look at it and give us ideas of what to do. I wish it had not happened, but it did and we cleaned up the mess.”
In the April FSM newsletter FSM President Jay Young said a contractor had estimated the damages at well over $100,000, but Riddlebarger said this week that the majority of damages were to parts of the building that would have had to be replaced as part of the renovation process.
“There was no major structural damage,” said Riddlebarger. “The damage was to parts of the building that would have had to be replaced as part of the renovations. If you have been in the building since it happened it does not look any different except for some missing drywall and ceiling tiles.”
Campground opening delayed
Plans to open the Moore’s Springs campground this summer have been delayed as a result of problems with the existing bridge and water supply.
“We were able to find money for fire rings and for some picnic tables and we have some of the materials we need to make a campground,” said Riddlebarger. “But then we started looking at how we get people in and give them water.”
She said the existing water supply comes from a mountain spring, which will not be cost effective for long term operations due to water quality regulations.
“It is probably the best tasting water around, but because we will be giving it to the public there are regulations we have to meet,” she explained. “It would cost $40,000 to secure the spring-head and even then we do not know if the water will test clean enough to give to the public. The regulators suggested we dig a well, so that is what we are doing.”
She said the park has the funds needed to drill the well, but noted that the existing bridge poses a bigger problem.
“I have had several bridge engineers come and look at it and they think it is a really neat bridge and well thought out, but they do not recommend sending more than 650 pounds over it,” said Riddlebarger. “That would eliminate almost any vehicle.
“The steel is still safe, but over the years the water rushing under it has worn away the structural integrity that holds up the steel,” she added. “We can’t send people across the bridge if we know it is not safe.”
She said park staff are evaluating a variety of options including replacing the bridge with an arched culvert or using the campground area as a hike-in facility.
“We might do that as a phase one with plans to develop it further in the future,” said Riddlebarger.
Funding still an issue
When the Vade Mecum and Moore’s Springs properties were transferred to the state park system last year they came with an annual additional $70,000 in funding, but Riddlebarger said that was no where near enough to be able to get the properties reopened to the public.
“That $70,000 covers maintenance and utilities each year,” she said. “We need an additional ranger and two additional maintenance mechanics to properly operate the additional property. Just in staffing costs that would be an additional $110,000 for salaries and benefits.”
“To fully open the property for public use will take a substantial recurring allocation, in addition to some one-time funding for repairs,” said Young in the April FSM newsletter. “We will be lobbying the Stokes delegation to ensure that adequate funding is included in this year’s budget. Please contact Sen. Randleman at Shirley.Randleman@ncleg.net or 919-733-5743 and Rep. Holloway at Bryan.Holloway@ncleg.net or 919-733- 5609 to help us in this effort.”
Bond would provide some funding
A request for a bond referendum by Gov. Pat McCrory would provide $2,800,000 in funding for the park if the General Assembly approves the plan and the citizens of North Carolina vote for it in November.
Riddlebarger said if that funding is approved the park system has a prioritized list of repairs that can be made to the property.
“It would not be enough to get the entire property reopened, but it is a start,” she said. “The State Department of Administration made a prioritized list of things that need to get up to code to meet safety standards. State Parks also went through with our construction people and we prioritized some other maintenance needs. We prioritized water systems and drinking water as our big highlights.”
Business plan expected soon
The UNCG Business School has been working on a business plan for the operation of the Vade Mecum property over the past year.
“They are going to reveal the results to us on May 4,” said Riddlebarger. “That will give us an idea of how to moveforward.”
Supporters of the property hope that once the business plan is released, it will give the park a starting point to ask for additional state funding for improvements on the property.
One of those improvements may include renovations to and the re-opening of the pool on the property.
“We had over 23,000 swimmers at the lake last year,” said Riddlebarger. “If we could reopen the pool it would provide a money making opportunity and provide another opportunity in the park that people want. Our focus group that is thinking through how to use the facility have already talked about doing season passes, family passes or maybe even renting the pool out or evening pool parties. We are exploring all the opportunities.”
She noted that initial estimates to renovate the pool fro reopening had decreased from $180,000 to $30,000.
“It is possible, but we have to get the money,” said Riddlebarger.
Working to do what is financially possible
Riddlebarger said the park and FSM were doing everything they could to get as much of the new property open to the public as soon as possible.
“I understand people’s frustration with the slowness,”she said. “I want to get people in there as bad as they want to be in there. There are some amazing natural features on the property that people are not aware of yet and the history is just so neat.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.