Green River Adventures to open ‘steepest, fastest’ zipline
By Gary Glancy, Times-News correspondent
Published: Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 4:30 a.m.
Get ready for the ride of your life, outdoor thrill-seekers.
That’s how the owners of Green River Adventures in Saluda are touting their latest endeavor, a zipline canopy tour operation on the precipice of the spectacular Green River Gorge.
Scheduled to open in May, “The Gorge” will send visitors on an aerial eco-tour, sliding in a secured harness down 6,500 feet of cable – or about one mile – with a vertical descent of more than 1,000 feet through a series of tree-based platforms.
Construction of The Gorge began last week.
Tim Bell, co-proprietor of the planned venture with his wife, Sara, said The Gorge will be the steepest and fastest canopy tour on the East Coast when it opens.
“Our outpost is perched on the rim of the Green River Gorge and you’re facing a 1,200-foot wall of the gorge,” Tim Bell said, “so there’s a really dramatic effect – like you’re going to dive into the gorge … We’ve got views up the Green River Gorge where you look up into the narrows section, but you can also see out the barrel of the gorge over Lake Lure and all the way up into Linville Gorge and Lake James, and, actually, on a really, really clear day you can pick out Grandfather Mountain.”
Ziplining continues to gain popularity among hard-core outdoor adventurers and families alike, both nationally and here in Western North Carolina. Local officials eagerly await the prospect of The Gorge bringing Polk and Henderson counties into the action.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for the area in that this will be one of the closest ziplines to Charlotte, Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, Charleston and even Atlanta, so they (the Bells) have the potential for a lot of upside of people coming to this venue,” Saluda Mayor Fred Baisden said. “And the merchants in town are really excited about the opportunity.”
Baisden said that because many zipline operations are located in remote wooded areas, they often are a good distance away from places to eat, shop or just hang out for those who wait while their loved ones are enjoying the ride.
“This,” Baisden said of The Gorge, “is a five-minute ride for people to come into Saluda from their outpost, and it’s just a great opportunity for the town to piggyback on outdoor activities in the area such as (kayaking) the Green River and bicycling and things like that, so I think it will be really good for Saluda.”
The canopy tour encompasses 125 acres of mature forest and looks out across the gorge at 10,000 acres of protected Green River gamelands, thus ensuring undeveloped, unspoiled views.
The Bells’ “tree-top canopy adventure,” as they’re billing it, will take participants from their new outpost at the end of Honeybee Drive in Saluda – just off Holbert Cove Road, two miles from downtown – down into the gorge through a series of eight ziplines.
The Bells said the course will also include three sky bridges and two freefall rappels of about 75 feet each.
At the end of their trip, near the lower section of the Green River in Green River Cove, participants will be picked up and shuttled back up to The Gorge’s outpost.
Sara Bell said this is a unique feature of the Gorge, since many other canopy tours offer a loop course. What also sets The Gorge apart, she added, is that it will feature “absolutely stunning” views throughout the entire course and from nine of the 13 platforms, rather than just a few.
“You’ll have these 180-degree views where you look to the left and you’re looking at Class V section of river, and if you look to the right you’re just looking down that barrel that Tim described,” she said. “So it’s breathtaking at multiple spots along the way.
The Bells, who moved the Green River Adventures outpost to downtown Saluda two years ago, had been eyeing The Gorge property for a while and made the purchase this summer.
Last month they applied for a Community Development Block Grant, and with a commitment to create 10 full-time positions with the business, the total award would be $250,000, Sara Bell said.
Part of the grant, she added, would be a $5,000 allocation to the city of Saluda, which would be used to install hidden WiFi antennas on Main Street so that all of downtown would have wireless access.
There were some challenges, however, in making The Gorge a reality. One of them was zoning issues.
The land the Bells purchased for The Gorge is zoned multiple-use, but recreational facilities that fell under Polk County’s multi-use zoning language, Sara Bell said, were only larger indoor venues such as skating rinks and bowling alleys – facilities with very large footprints and huge parking lots.
County commissioners, therefore, worked with county staff to amend the language to broaden the scope of allowable recreational uses.
“The outdoor industry is growing, the Green River Gorge and Saluda area are becoming sort of a hot spot for adventure tourism, and there just wasn’t a multi-use (allowance) for what we were doing,” Sara Bell said. “It was really a group effort with the county commissioners, the zoning department, the county’s planning board. It was so motivating to see all of those political figures and county staff members come together and say, ‘All right, this is going to be a fabulous thing for our county, this is the type of growth we want to see. How can we make this happen?’
“I think what it did was open the door for other recreation providers, and sent a message that Polk County is welcoming that type of industry and that type of growth.”
The Bells, and Baisden, said public response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive, with the exception of concerns over parking. They are working together to ensure there is enough on-site parking at the Gorge and some public lots near town to avert over-burdening downtown spaces.
Tim Bell said the couple’s goal is for The Gorge to become an added attraction to the local outdoors scene so that it sparks multi-day stays for visitors to the area, which will benefit other industries such as lodging, food and retail.
Andrew Tate, president and CEO of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, recently began working with the Bells and other outdoors-related business leaders in developing a regional roundtable to discuss strategies in approaching and attracting more outdoor industry companies.
Tate said the idea is to pull together representatives from a wide variety of companies “who can provide us valuable advice in terms of how to pursue economic development (related to) the outdoors industry.”
They currently include such businesses as Green River Adventures, Mast General Store, Green Legacy Paddlesports, Sycamore Cycles, Cane Creek Cycling Components, Diamond Brand Outdoors, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Outdoor Sports Marketing.
Tate agreed that WNC already is viewed nationally as an alluring destination in the outdoors industry, and is “on the front edge” of seeing additional momentum. He cited numbers that show the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area to have about 1.6 percent of its employment base involved in some form of the outdoor industry, including retail and manufacturing.
“That may sound like a small number,” Tate said, “but if you compare that number to Boulder, Colo. or Portland, Oregon or Roanoke, Virginia or any of the other areas in the U.S. that are seen as hotbeds for outdoor activity, we have a much higher percentage of our employment base involved in that sector. To me, that reaffirms that the sector, the cluster, is already here. It’s here largely because of the culture and the natural assets of the area, which attracts those who value those assets and they start businesses or they go to work for businesses that are already here.”
Over time, Tate added, the outdoors cluster has become more organized and better-known, evidenced by organizations like American Whitewater opening an office in WNC and the Outdoor Industry Association holding its annual Rendezvous event in Asheville two years ago.
“So Western North Carolina is recognized in the outdoor industry as a hub for outdoor recreation,” Tate said. “I think what we’re trying to do, and what Tim and Sara are helping with, is to elevate that awareness, and use it as leverage to grow the cluster.”
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