November 13, 2017 | Allen Turner
If things go according to plan, a new tourist attraction that probably also will be heavily utilized by locals should be completed by this spring, Columbus County commissioners were told at their meeting last week.
Ron England, general managing member of Envalish Recreation, LLC, told commissioners that his company has purchased 26 acres at 1571 Neils Eddy Rd. in Riegelwood. Preliminary work has been done on the site by Duke-Progress Energy, paths have been cut on the property and builders will begin two or three months of expected construction work as soon as they finish repairing hurricane damage at a similar facility in Florida.
“We look to be ready to rock and roll and have the park open by early spring,” England told commissioners. A highlight of the park experience will be ziplining, but other aerial adventure options, such as wobbly bridges, cargo net climbs and swings also will be included.
The entire park is designed to it blend into the natural forest habitat, giving users a sense of “being lost in the woods.” England said the fact that his group has 26 acres has allowed a design that permits the park “to kind of wander and kind of zig-zag through the woods.”
Park adventurers will be anywhere from 10 to 70 feet above the ground, but safety will be a major design issue. Guests will be harnessed in with lifelines with double-fail protections to prevent accidents. “Our safety equipment goes above and beyond anything required by the state. Our harnesses will make it physically impossible for someone to unclip their safety lines and either fall or step off the platform,” England said. “Everything our park users will do, they’ll be clipped in from the overhead the entire time, and the maximum they possibly fall would be about six inches,” he said.
England and one of his four partners have 17 years experience in an industry that is only about ten years old. The Riegelwood site was chosen because of its abundance of mature, healthy trees with natural shade to give park-goers a “lost in the woods” feeling. Another factor in selecting the site was relative easy of access from major highways like U.S. 74/76, N.C. 87 and U.S. 17.
Research also indicated to the developers that location area essentially is between the property centers of Wilmington, Fayetteville, Jacksonville and Myrtle Beach, making it a prime area from which to draw customers.
“Through research, we’ve found that people don’t mind driving two hours or more to get to a facility like ours,” England said. “Once they’re on site, to completely navigate the course will take users about four hours.”
Everything will be built in a natural environment and construction techniques will be employed to keep trees from being damaged, England said. “We’re not hippy tree-huggers, because we’ll cut down every tree we have to in order to build this park the correct way, but we will preserve the environment.”
Although paths already have been cut on the property and Duke-Progress Energy already has installed underground light poles and pedestals, construction will begin in earnest as soon as crews from Outplay Adventures, LLC, the exclusive U.S. builder for TreeGo (which has built similar parks worldwide), finish hurricane repair work in Florida.
Outplay takes special care and concern, England said, to customize each park to blend in with its natural setting and minimize environmental impacts to maximize tree health. The company uses a compression system that secures platforms to trees without damaging those trees in any way, and no chemically treated wood is used in the construction process.
In addition, England said the course builders further minimize damage to trees by climbing without spikes. “In addition to having fantastic carpentry skills, they have to be great rope tree climbers, too,” England said.
Platforms will be attached to trees by two sets of logs that act as vises. That not only eliminates damage to trees from nails and spokes driven into the trees, but also allows for expansion as trees grow or tightening if a tree shrinks. “We make our money on the health of our trees,” said England, “so we don’t want to damage them at all.”
England believes the area is ripe for a venture like his to be financially successful here. He gave commissioners demographic numbers from the N.C. Dept. of Commerce showing that in 2013 alone, tourism-related spending was $477 million in New Hanover County and $470 million in Brunswick County, while Columbus only saw $49.59 million in tourist expenditures the same year.
“A lot of tourists will come to this area, and a lot of locals will use the park, too,” England said. “I want to take some of that tourism money out of Brunswick and New Hanover and bring it into Columbus County. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur that we’ll be taking $300 million away from those other counties, but I believe we can get our share of those tourism dollars.”
In response to questions from commissioners, England stressed that safety will be a primary concern in the design and operation of the park, with part-goers being required to use fail-safe safety harnesses and equipment.
He also said the park will be available to local civic, Scout, church and school groups, as well as by fire and EMS groups for training purposes. The rates for local groups will be much less than charged to tourists.
“We want the park to be well-received by local residents, as well as by tourists,” England said, “and we absolutely will keep it affordable. What we charge local groups won’t be close to our normal daily rate. It probably will be as much as 50 percent off. We’ll try to make sure we’re charging enough to pay for our guides without operating in the red, but we are not looking to get rich off of local groups.”