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Bill calls for Beech Fork lodge study

March 2, 2019 GMT

CHARLESTON — Senators representing the southwestern counties of West Virginia successfully amended a bill requiring the Division of Natural Resources to study state park infrastructure to specifically require a feasibility study on building the long-promised lodge at Beech Fork State Park.

House Bill 3140 allows the DNR director to authorize repair, renovation and rehabilitation for existing facilities, buildings, amenities and infrastructure.

Sens. Bob Plymale, Mike Woelfel, Paul Hardesty and Ron Stollings, all Democrats, moved to suspend the rules Friday to allow for amendments on third reading of the bill and offered an amendment to require the DNR to complete a feasibility study for the Beech Fork Lodge by December 2019.

According to the amendment, the director must convene two public hearings by Oct. 1. The first hearing will seek input regarding options for construction of a lodge and conference center, including all available public, private or public-private partnership funding and financing options.

The second public hearing should be on the feasibility study, and any recommendations will be available for public comment.

These hearings must be in a suitable location reasonably close to Beech Fork to accommodate public participation by citizens of Cabell, Lincoln and Wayne counties, according to the amendment.

The final report must be submitted to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance by Dec. 1.

“This gives us an opportunity to come up with a plan that will work,” said Plymale, who believes a public-private partnership may be the best option. “What they have been concerned with before was what will be your occupancy during the winter months. If we work with Marshall (University) and some other places to start looking at having some conferences and things there, maybe we can get some commitments to do things like that, that would help us get the feasibility to where we get the occupancy rates we need.”

Plymale said Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch supports the amendment. It also has support from the local county commissions, and Plymale was working with House delegates to support the amendment.

Support for the lodge itself still exists as well and still fits perfectly with the visions of Appalachian Heartland Highway tourism.

The push for a lodge at Beech Fork goes back more than three decades.

It seemed the project would finally happen in 2012 when Rick Thompson, who at the time was the speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates, was able to secure $5.5 million in federal funding for infrastructure costs.

In April 2012, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed Senate Bill 362, which authorized a $28 million bond issue to build a lodge at the park.

A year later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a feasibility study for the project, another key hurdle.

However, in 2015, a letter written by Tomblin’s chief of staff to six state legislators who had requested an update on the project stated that the bonds would not be issued at that time nor anytime in the foreseeable future. The lodge had been forecast to open in summer 2016.

The letter stated that a decrease in state lottery revenues would likely have led to a decrease in coverage ratios for bond issues. It went on to say the state hadn’t seen the revenue it anticipated from lease agreements in the oil and natural gas industry to pay for the project.

The project would have consisted of a 75-room lodge with restaurant, indoor swimming pool, meeting facilities and recreation centers at Beech Fork.

A feasibility study finished in 2012 estimated that the lodge would inject almost $2 million annually into Wayne County’s economy and generate 28 jobs. There would be an indirect impact of $2.6 million more and an additional 34 jobs, according to the study.

As of 2015, the only profitable state park was Chief Logan State Park, which has a lodge that the Beech Fork lodge would be modeled after, while Beech Fork is the No. 1 attended park in the state.

The amended HB 3140 was communicated to the House on Friday evening, and the body will need to accept the Senate’s changes.

Wayne County News Managing Editor Nikki Dotson Merritt contributed to this report. Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.