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Natural Bridge caught up on outstanding debt, optimistic for future

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NATURAL BRIDGE (WSLS 10) -After months of financial woes, Natural Bridge is financially back on track. They've been able to wipe out outstanding debt thanks to state lawmakers and private donors.

It's been a rough road since the owners of Natural Bridge missed their yearly October payment of $910,000 to the Virginia Resource Authority, on top of back taxes, in all totaling a little more than a million dollars.

"Just this week we were able to pay the remaining portion," said Jennifer Bell with the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund at Natural Bridge.

Bell says they now have a new financial structure in place moving forward.

"Really we can only go up, but we're going to go up from here," Bell said. She is confident they are on a positive track for financial success.

She says the effort to pay such an outstanding debt has been successful due in part to the amount of people and collective efforts of lawmakers and conservationists who were willing to make it happen.

"It's been a collaborative effort to get everything done. In January and February we were able to receive donations in order to make those payments," Bell said.

Not only did the donors help pay the debts, they have made an agreement with the lender, the VRA to cut the yearly payment of $910,000 in half to $455,000 a year. In exchange, they've agreed to foot the bill in case the owners can't make the payment.  This agreement stretches the original loan of $9,100,000 from a 10-year period to a 20-year period. To date, $7,280,000 is still owed on the loan balance.

Those donors make up a new steering committee to help guide the bridge in financial decisions.

In the meantime Natural Bridge donated the caverns back to the state which earned them more than a million dollars in tax credit to pay debt.

Bell says they've also hired two extra positions to staff. One new hire will directly oversee accounting and budgeting initiatives. The second hire is for a sales position that will focus on bringing in more day tours to boost profits.

The governor also played a big role in securing more funding by designating $120,000 a year in his budget for the next two years to go to Natural Bridge.

The original agreement upon sale of the property is that the property would eventually become a state park after the loan was paid. Now, Senator Emmett Hanger has introduced a budget amendment that would authorize the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to enter into a "Memorandum of Understanding to operate Natural Bridge State Park pursuant to an agreement with VCLF." DCR has indicated the proposed legislation submitted by Hanger and the Governors buget will enable DCR to commence operations of the state park in 2016. By becoming a state park, Natural bridge would be able to capitalize on the marketing and public awareness initiatives that would increase visitors.

Joe Elton with the Virginia Department of Recreation and Conservation has been working on "Natural Bridge State Park" for three years. He is optimistic and says all parties, including the newly formed steering committee are dedicated to making it happen.

"That could happen as early as this summer if all of the work comes together as we had hoped," Elton said.


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