Tunnel vision: Ecotourism project a future boon?

Story by Chris Graham
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Claudius Crozet’s forward thinking two centuries ago is serving as a guide for local leaders trying to turn his technological marvel of a railroad tunnel through the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap into a tourist attraction.

“It will be a draw for hikers, for railroad buffs, geology people, history people. There’s a wide swath of people that this should appeal to,” said Emily Harper, the director of parks and recreation in Nelson County, which has taken the lead on the project to repurpose the Crozet Tunnel.

The county has submitted a request for funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation and another for money from the federal government that could jumpstart the beginning of construction work at the site as soon as later this year.

The long-range plans at and around the location have Albemarle County and Waynesboro, which sit at the entrances to the Tunnel to the east and to the west, engaging in long-range plans for what they can do to partner with Nelson County in a regional economic-development initiative.

“None of the project is physically in Albemarle County, but symbolically it has an important relationship to the county. “I’ve thought from the beginning that if this project wasn’t linked to the community of Crozet, that would be an opportunity missed,” said Dan Mahon, the greenway coordinator in the Albemarle County Department of Parks and Recreation.

The county, like other local governments across the state and across the country, has had to put some of what it wants to do in the community-development arena on hold given the current budget constraints, “but the Tunnel is still in our long-range plans,” Mahon said.

“As ecotourism and heritage tourism, for bike enthusiasts, for hikers, it’s an incredible project. But for the time being, we’ve had to scale back and focus on some critical areas to meet our objectives,” Mahon said.

“I think down the road that enhancing that site as a major point of interest for all the counties in this area could make that a great destination,” Mahon said.

The Tunnel was a hot topic at a March Tourism Summit arranged by Waynesboro City Councilwoman Lorie Smith, who wants to see the city get involved more actively in working with its neighbors on the project in the future.

“I believe firmly that we’ve got to take acknowledgement of these types of projects around us, and we have got to be in a planning mode. We’re not going to be able to take advantage of the increased dollars that could come into Waynesboro if we don’t do some planning and some collaboration with our neighbors to try to maximize these opportunities,” Smith said.

“We know that our East End has huge potential. We’ve got huge potential to pull visitors in off the Parkway, which is in the thousands per year. I am really hoping that this will be an impetus toward getting people looking toward getting progressive about developing the east side of Waynesboro at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Smith said.


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