The southern portion of the 54-county SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) area will see the area’s oldest abandoned surface mine become a new tourist attraction that could attract more than 600,000 visitors, annually.
“It is an exciting time in eastern Kentucky,” said Gov. Matt Bevin, who co-chairs the SOAR Executive Board along with Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, R-Ky.
Bevin and Rogers were at the site in Bell County Tuesday for the announcement of the project and then discussed the matter further during a meeting of the SOAR executive committee at The Corbin Center.
“There is no question we are on the right track,” Rogers said, pointing to this and other projects such as the Kentucky Wired effort to provide broadband Internet access across the state.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement approved a $12.5 million grant for the project that was first announced in March 2014.
The 1,000-plus acre site will include a conservation education and elk viewing facility, a regional museum, gift shop and local artisan market, along with a meeting and conference center.
In addition, the facility, which is located along the Cumberland River, will have a concert and entertainment amphitheater and a wildlife research center.
The total cost of construction is estimated at $22.3 million and is expected to be completed in five phases with the facility opening to the public in 2019.
The facility is estimated to generate more than $1 billion in regional economic activity.
Corbin Tourism Director Maggy Kriebel said she and other tourism directors in the region understand that it is attractions, such as The Arena in Corbin, Cumberland Falls and other state parks, and soon the wildlife center, that will draw people to the area for an extended period.
“Corbin or Barbourville or Middlesboro may not be able to offer enough to generate a week-long stay from visitors,” Kriebel explained. “In the region, we do have enough to generate that stay.”
Kriebel said whether it is a week, or even a day, she expects Corbin to benefit economically from the facility.
“Travellers coming off the interstate will be stopping in Corbin for gas and to get a bite to eat,” Kriebel said.
Knox County Judge-executive J.M. Hall said this could only benefit Knox County as well.
“If we can get them to stop off here in Knox, it will definitely have some positive impact on us,” Hall said. “Anytime we can divert traffic into Knox County and the Cumberland Gap area it is very beneficial.”