Natural Bridge park saved

This natural rock formation, described as the longest rock bridge east of the Rockies, brings in visitors from all over the world.

NATURAL BRIDGE - Local, county and state officials who have been fighting to save Natural Bridge park as a local tourist attraction can breathe a sigh of relief now the park has been sold to a couple who are planning to not only keep the park open but eventually expand the trail system.

This announcement was made official by Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes, who is also chairman of the Winston County Resource Conservation and Development Council, at the council’s quarterly meeting on Thursday, Aug. 17.

“The people came to see me Tuesday of this week, a nice couple. They have bought it. They are planning to keep it open,” Hayes told the audience at the RC&D meeting held at Lakeshore Restaurant near Double Springs.

Donnie and Naomi Lowman, originally of Georgia, have purchased the approximately 149 acre park and a separate land parcel not intended for park related purposes at this point, Naomi told the Alabamian.

“We’re wanting to keep (the park) open and maybe open up some new trails,” Naomi explained. “That’s our plans and maybe to add some cabins on the outer road at some point, just some small little cabins, not anything that is going to disturb the park area.

“We wanted to just upgrade it some,” Naomi added. “It needs some upgrading.”

However, the new owners are making plans as they go and will see what is ahead based on how the park does economically, they indicated.

“We’re trying to see what will make money here, and we’re in the process of throwing some ideas around,” said Naomi.

The Lowmans heard about the park being for sale and had actually visited the park in the past, she indicated.

“We had bought the other piece of property and we came over here once,” Naomi said. “It’s beautiful.”

A sign posted near the park entrance states that Natural Bridge is longest natural rock bridge east of the Rocky Mountains.

Tourists to the park through the years have come from not just throughout the United States but other countries as well. Recently, a family visiting from Denmark was very impressed by the bridge.

“It’s something that everyone should see,” Naomi pointed out. “It’s a pretty piece of property.”

When asked about any change in the admission price to the park, Naomi responded that plans were still underway to see what needed to be done toward park improvements.

Park hours are being adjusted due to work being done at the park, she added. The park is now open 8 a.m. -  4 p.m. seven days a week, instead of closing at sunset as it did previously.

In time, the park might be closed on a couple of lower-attendance days per week in order for work to be done on improvements, according to the new owners.

“We’re just trying to see right now, at this point, what will work,” she said. “We haven’t been here long enough to see what we need to do to make it better.

“We do want to expand some trails, but it’s just going to take time on our part to get everything done we want to get done,” Naomi pointed out.

Now that the park is sold, county officials and state officials are coming together to see what financial incentives they can obtain for the property, Hayes informed those at the RC&D meeting.

“...With it being a private group, it is still going to be tourism,” Hayes stated. “They have got a pretty good plan on it, and they are not finished with it...They have got some really good ideas on it.”

The goal is to apply for funding earmarked for tourism or economic development that could help the new owners develop the park, according to Hayes.

He noted that Marion County officials have been requested to provide assistance in digging to possibly provide county water to the park, since the park has relied on well water.

The digging to provide water service to the park would be done within 1,900 feet of the park entrance, which faces Highway 278 about a mile west of the Natural Bridge intersection, Hayes indicated.

“They have got to have water down there,” Hayes pointed out. “They’ve got their own well, but I am not sure they will be allowed to use that.

“There are just several things that we don’t know what we’ve got to work with,” Hayes continued.

Hayes plans to reach out to the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments, Natural Resources Council and Walker Area Community Foundation, as well determine if any assistance can be provided by RC&D, which gives seed or start up money for area community development projects.

“You’ve got a lot of governmental entities that know how to do these things, and we’ve got to get them lined up to get it done,” Hayes pointed out.

“We’ve got to be able to do it right, but it’s going to be a tourist attraction,” he added.

This preliminary checking will allow officials to see what paperwork should be filed in applying for funding for the park since it will be a source of tourism, which is also considered economic development, officials have said.

“You can’t go onto private property and do all of that,” said Hayes. “We just don’t know enough about it right now, and we just know we have a project, and we have already started working on it.

“We don’t know where it is going to go,” Hayes continued, “but we feel like that we’ve got some possibilities.”

Commissioner District 2 David Cummings hopes the county can sit down soon with the new park owners and discuss options. “And see what the county can do to assist them and moving the park in a forward direction,” he said.

“They are wanting to expand and offer more opportunities for the Natural Bridge park, and we look forward to helping on a county aspect any way we can, to make it more attractive, to bring tourism into Winston County,” Cummings continued.

Natural Bridge mayor excited about news
Natural Bridge Mayor Pete Parrish noted he was tickled to death the park would remain open and provide a benefit to not only the town of Natural Bridge but Winston County as a whole.
“We’re tickled to death about it,” Parrish pointed out. “That’s what Natural Bridge is all about, since 1954 when the Legg (family) opened the park, is tourism.

“Tourism brings in money to Natural Bridge,” Parrish continued. “Tourism brings in money to all of Winston County.”

Parrish stated that many visitors to the park are coming off Interstate 22, which is about seven miles away.  The interstate travels over such nearby major highways as 13 and 129 that are in the area of the park.

“Hopefully the state legislature is going to get (Highway) 13 as Natural Bridge Parkway,” Mayor Parrish pointed out.

Several months ago, Natural Bridge town officials met with county and state legislators on Highway 13 to announce plans to rename that seven mile stretch of highway from Interstate 22 to the park as Natural Bridge Parkway.

One of the legislators in attendance for that road designation was Representative Tracy Estes, one of the major proponents in wanting to save the park, when it was put up for sale.

The effort to save the park from closure has been a major joint effort of the commission, state legislators and the Natural Bridge Town Council, Representative Estes said.

“We have attended multiple Forever Wild meetings across the state, trying to make sure that property got into good hands,” Estes stated.

The mission at that time was to see if Forever Wild would purchase the park and donate it to the Alabama Department of Conservation in order for the park to remain open and for tourism, Estes explained.

“We wanted to make sure it stayed open to the public,” Estes said, “so it sounds like the good Lord has been very good to us and sent us a family that has very good intentions for our park.”

J.D. Snoddy, one of the major advocates to save Natural Bridge park, had been scheduled to speak at a Forever Wild board meeting when news came that the park had been purchased.

“I am excited because any time we can get more tourism places in Winston County, it’s good for the whole county,” Snoddy pointed out.

“I look forward to working with those folks and sharing ideas and putting things  together to benefit the county as a whole,” Snoddy added.

“Natural Bridge is a great tourist place,” he continued. “It’s good for our county. It’s going to be a plus.”

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