High Bridge More Than Doubled Visits In 2012

Published 3:37 pm Thursday, December 27, 2012

FARMVILLE – High Bridge Trail State Park will start 2013 off with a literal bang but has already doubled its 2011 visitation levels in 2012, with the month of December yet to be counted.

“We've had a tremendous year,” the park's manager Eric Hougland told Farmville's Town Council this month.

“Our attendance from January 1 to November 30 this year has 181,315 visits. Last year's total attendance was 86,110, so we've more than doubled our attendance from last year and we still have December to count in that,” he said during his briefing. “And, again, keep in mind that High Bridge didn't open until April.”

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During that Easter weekend opening of the trail's namesake and major attraction, between 4,500 and 5,000 visitors made the trek.

“What a start to opening the main attraction of this park,” he said.

“We had a guest register at High Bridge. We had people sign in from 14 different states and Washington, D.C.'” Hougland said, adding, “we've seen continued visitation from outside the area, from many states and even outside the country.”

On January 1, High Bridge Trail will begin charging $2 for parking on weekdays and $3 on the weekends, just as all of Virginia's state parks do. The park will use self-pay stations at each of its parking lots. There will be an annual pass available, too, for local citizens or other regular users of the park.

The parking fees are, as named, for parking in the state park's designated parking lots. Users accessing the trail by walking or riding on to the trail, off Main Street in Farmville, for example, will not be charged an entrance fee, Hougland told The Herald.

January 1 will also see state parks around Virginia again hosting First Day Hike and High Bridge Trail State Park will host the Cummings Battery of Cape Fear Light Artillery for load and, in particular, fire demonstrations.

A big bang theory that's easily understood, and thus will begin the park's 2013 with the First Day Hikers meeting up at 1 p.m. at the River Road parking lot.

High Bridge Trail State Park has gotten off to a roaring success but the park's manager acknowledged, “we also have our challenges.”

The issue of accessibility of High Bridge has been a recurring point of conversation among Town Council members during work sessions or monthly meetings.

Hougland went straight to the point during council's regular December meeting, noting the reality of the situation and what the park has done, and is willing to facilitate to make bridge access easier.

“High Bridge being the main attraction, it is nine-tenths of a mile from our closest parking lot and we realize that is a problem,” he frankly told council members.

“And I want to kind of just comment too; I've heard it said that High Bridge is not accessible. I guess it's how you define accessible. By ADA standards, our trail and High Bridge both meet ADA accessibility guidelines,” he said. “However, it's not convenient, and we know that.”

To overcome the inconvenience for the elderly or those with mobility disabilities who wish to visit the bridge, itself, electric wheelchairs, electric scooters, any type of those devices that meet the definition of a wheelchair, are perfectly acceptable and welcome at High Bridge Trail, Hougland pointed out.

And, he noted, “we have instituted a program where persons with mobility disabilities can apply for authorization to use a golf cart. There is a process to that. They apply through our central office and get that authorization and use a golf cart on our park.”

High Bridge Trail State Park has also instituted a group escort program.

“It is by reservation so it's not quite as convenient as being able to go any day but we do have this program available where groups will contact the park and make a reservation. Park staff will meet them and guide them or go with them out to High Bridge, eliminating that nine-tenths of a mile,” Hougland said.

The group escort to High Bridge is on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, with four different time slots each day.

“We served 16 groups this year, totaling 380 people who took advantage of that program, and it was very successful,” he told council members.

The Town of Farmville has formally expressed interest in the possibility of private individuals, businesses or local government conducting shuttle service to the bridge and Hougland told Town Council the state is willing to discuss that possibility.

“I had a conversation with (Virginia State Parks Manager) Joe Elton this morning. He had received a letter from Gerry (Town Manager Gerald Spates) on behalf of council commenting, or requesting the ability for the Town or private individuals to conduct shuttle services on the park and Joe and I discussed that and I want to relay to you that that is something that we are open to conversation about.

“In fact,” Hougland continued, “about this time last year I had a private citizen approach me about doing a private shuttle service and we were working out the conditions, specifications and so forth and he ran into a snag with DMV…that created a real hurdle for him. We are very open to that idea and open to that discussion.”

Something very much like it is beginning to take shape at Virginia's other rails to trails state park, New River Trail.

“They are in the process of putting out a request for proposal for golf cart tours at that trail that will be operated by a private business, where a percentage of the revenues goes back to the state park,” Hougland pointed out. “There are some avenues through which that can be addressed.”

Asked by council member Dr. Edward I. Gordon about the popularity of the escorted tours to High Bridge, Hougland said the response depends on the day. “We have four time slots on each of those days; some have seen all four time slots full and a very busy day, some days it's just one (time-slot full),” Hougland replied.

“For us, having those days allows us to schedule for that, to plan for that,” he said. The park has just three full-time staff, with seven part-timers, covering a park that had 181,000 visits across 1,100 acres along 31 miles. “It spreads us pretty thin,” he said.

Hougland said that what he proposes is “something a private business could do or if another government agency wanted to do, we're willing to work with it; this (shuttle service) is probably something that the park isn't going to do, just because we don't have the resources.”

When asked by Dr. Gordon about what size vehicle a private venture might be allowed to operate for a shuttle service, Hougland again pointed to New River Trail as an example.

“At New River Trail…apparently there is a golf cart-like vehicle that can hold eight people, so they're allowing that size of vehicle to be used on the trail,” he said, adding that there “are going to be some limitations to the size…”

While delivering his 2012 review, Hougland noted the visitation numbers and economic impact on the community. “And those are tremendous things, no doubt. It's pretty exciting to come into Farmville on a Saturday and see all the bikes on the backs of cars,” Hougland commented, “but I like that it improves the quality of life for the residents of Farmville and the other localities, to have people that are out walking every day or on their lunch break, exploring, running, cycling, whatever it might be, families coming out. I'm most pleased that we've helped improve the quality of life.”

Hougland offered thanks during his remarks to the park's volunteers, who gave 1,300 hours during the year.

“We have a tremendous citizen support organization, Friends of High Bridge Trail,” he said. “They help us in many ways…They have stepped up.”

Hougland, who noted the state park offered 96 specific programs that served 3,252 people, had special thanks to Prince Edward County and the High Bridge exhibit in the regional visitors center.

And big accolades for the Town of Farmville, too, for giving the park one of the best front doors in America.

“The streetscape project, what we term the plaza area of Main Street, that you all have provided is a tremendous trailhead for our state park. And there's not many trailheads on rails to trails parks in this country that are going to rival that trailhead,” Hougland said, “so we certainly appreciate your commitment to the park in that way.”