The state has received significant help in piecing together the new state park from The Nature Conservancy, the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, the Foothills Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, as well as supporters in the local community.
January 29, 2007: Gov. Mike Easley announced today that the state of North Carolina has agreed to purchase the landmark Chimney Rock Park in Rutherford County from the Morse family's Chimney Rock Company. The park will become the centerpiece of a new state park under development in Hickory Nut Gorge. The agreement sets a purchase price of $24 million for the 996-acre park and its signature 315-foot spire that overlooks Lake Lure.
"Chimney Rock is one of the most visible images of our state's landscape and giving it an honored place in our state parks system is a conservation success story for all North Carolinians," Easley said. "The Morse family has maintained careful stewardship of this land for generations and the state will continue to protect these natural resources."
Funding for the acquisition comes from a $15 million appropriation in the state budget and various grants from the state's Parks and Recreation, Natural Heritage and Clean Water Management Trust funds. A private donor, who wished to remain anonymous, also contributed $2.35 million for the purchase.
The agreement is the result of two years of negotiations between Chimney Rock Co. and the state. Under the terms of the agreement, Chimney Rock Co. will continue to operate the park through 2007 while the state parks system develops an operations plan.
Chimney Rock Park has been a tourist attraction in western North Carolina since a stairway was built to the rock's summit in 1885. In 1902, Lucius B. Morse of Missouri bought the site and began developing the park. Its facilities include a tunnel and elevator to the rock summit, a visitor center, nature center and a network of hiking trails to geologic points of interest and the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls.
"As stewards of this special property for more than 100 years, our goal was to achieve an outcome that was the best result for the land, the community, our associates and our family," said Todd Morse, president and general manager of Chimney Rock Co. "We're happy that the Morse family's legacy of stewardship will be formally recognized and shared with state park visitors for generations to come."
"Today we make sure this important landmark will be protected so future generations will be able to enjoy it as we can today," said state Sen. Walter Dalton (D-Rutherford). "Those of use who live in this area are thankful for the stewardship of the Morse family and grateful to all North Carolinians who recognize the importance of protecting our natural heritage."
"I am delighted that we are adding nearly 1,000 acres of scenic western North Carolina's to our state's protected lands," said state Rep. Bob England (D-Rutherford). "I will continue to see that the state makes these kinds of investments to preserve North Carolina's pristine resources."
Chimney Rock Park adjoins property the state acquired for Hickory Nut Gorge State Park, a new state park slated to open in 2008. The state parks system has acquired 2,264 acres on both sides of the rugged gorge for the state park. The gorge has been considered a premier state park site in the system's New Parks for a New Century initiative, which examined areas throughout the state as potential state parks or state natural areas and found the gorge to be a significant center of biodiversity and natural heritage.
Chimney Rock Company President Todd Morse and Chairman of the Board Lucius B. Morse's comments from the joint press conference with North Carolina Governor Mike Easley on Monday, January 29, 2007.
In July 2006, we publicly disclosed that our family had been actively working for the past two and a half years toward understanding our property and the prospects for our business in light of the numerous changes occurring locally, regionally, and nationally that have impacted us and would continue to have a strategic bearing on our future. As stewards of this special property for over 100 years, our goal was to achieve an outcome that was the best result for the land, the community, our associates, and our family. We shared that, in addition to on-going discussions with the state of North Carolina, we had decided to place our much-loved and unique property on the market for sale as a part of our process.
After much time, energy, thought, emotion, and soul searching since then, I’m pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement with the Division of State Parks to sell Chimney Rock Park to the people of the State of North Carolina.
Though we have many details to resolve before we close on the agreements in May of this year, we want to assure our guests, our associates, and the community that we will continue to operate the Park with our same high standards and quality programming through at least the end of this season. After that time, the Park will temporarily close for a reasonably short period of time next winter and reopen the following spring. We will immediately begin working with the Division of State Parks to develop a unique model for the State to manage this unique place utilizing a public / private management system that is as consistent as possible under State ownership with the way the Park has been run by our family for many years. This would include an admission fee structure similar to the fee we currently have in place. We believe that all of this is in the best interest of the sustainability of the Park, as well as the community. It also creates future employment opportunities for our employees, whose love and commitment have been central to our successes over the years and essential during the challenges of this past year. We’re still exploring a transitional time frame to accomplish all of this and will keep the public and our employees informed as we make progress on our mutual goals for the future success, preservation, and conservation of the Park. And as part of this agreement, we’re glad to announce that the Morse family’s legacy of stewardship will be formally recognized and shared with Park visitors for generations to come.
In closing, we want to take this opportunity to share our appreciation for the many people and organizations that have helped to make this day possible and now a reality. In particular, we would like to thank Governor Easley who personally spent a significant amount of time on the telephone with my father, Lucius, discussing the importance of protecting and preserving Chimney Rock Park for the citizens of North Carolina, Senator Walter Dalton, who provided leadership, and other members of the North Carolina General Assembly for making the funds available for this purchase and creating the political will to help this all happen. We want to share our appreciation for Lewis Ledford, Director of North Carolina State Parks, for his interest and considerable help in attaining this outcome. We would also like to thank several conservancy groups, especially Mike Leonard and Dick Ludington of The Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, for their strong interest and extraordinary efforts in getting an agreement worked out as well as their vision for protecting Hickory Nut Gorge. We want to express our appreciation to members of the local community and the Friends of Hickory Nut Gorge for their passion for protecting this special place, and the respectful way in which they’ve handled their advocacy for this outcome. We are also grateful to the team of advisors that have greatly assisted us through this process through their insight, counsel, and expertise – in particular, Dumont Clarke and his legal team with Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte and David Wiggins and his team from Dixon-Hughes in Asheville. And finally, we would like to again thank our employees, whose commitment, loyalty and love for this place and each other allowed us the time, resources, and energy to achieve this positive outcome for the people of North Carolina and beyond.
I want to take a final moment to share what this means to me. As a boy, I always eagerly anticipated my first site of Chimney Rock when we’d drive down to the Park each year from St. Louis. I have many fond memories with my family over the years and perhaps have my strongest connection here to the memories of my brother, whom we sadly lost many years ago. And more recently in my adult life, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share the love for this place with my family through the good times and the challenging ones, to meet and know many special associates and guests, and to form a deeper connection with this mountain. To walk the trails in the fog, run to the top of the mountain before we were open on a day that clouds were below me, see the snow fall, witness the absolute peak of fall color and the return of the spring green, camp out with my son, Tristan, and be married on the Chimney more than 20 years ago to my beautiful wife, Melinda, all reflect memories that will live on in my heart forever. Though I can’t tell you how many nights’ sleep I’ve lost over trying to do the best I could for this place, the people here, the community, and our business, I’m grateful to put my head on the pillow tonight and know that what we’ve done today will allow me to sleep well with the knowledge that this special place is protected, that our employees have continuing opportunities here, the community’s interest will be served, and that future visitors will be able to continue to experience the joy and awe of this incredible place forever.
I had a conversation with Governor Easley several months ago regarding the sale of Chimney Rock Park that was very persuasive and enjoyable. So, as my brother-in-law Yogi Berra said once, "Thank you for making this day necessary."
In 2004, my son Todd and I recognized that the world had discovered Western North Carolina, being one of the finest places in the world. Property values were rising rapidly, causing us to rethink estate problems and our futures.
Todd and I had a meeting with Lewis Ledford, Director of the Division of State Parks and Recreation. Lewis brought maps of Hickory Nut Gorge and shared some of the thinking about this area becoming a State Park. Thus began the discussions leading up to today.
Also, thanks to Dumont Clarke of Moore & Van Allen and David Wiggins, our auditor and partner with Dixon-Hughes. They helped guide us through some very emotional times.
My emotions and feelings run deeply, starting in 1945. As a boy, I remember three rainbows together over the valley, a view from the old Cliff Dwellers Inn. With walking the trails and more, so started my learning and love for here. With a fear of heights, I crawled up the stairs to the Chimney on hands and knees. Later, I rode a construction bucket to the top of the elevator shaft. Same fears, but fun.
My wife Bonnie and I have enjoyed decades here together, the seasons, picking apples and blackberries, walks in the woods, staying in the Lodge out on the back porch, listening to the night bugs of fall, the owls and sights and sounds throughout the seasons. Every trip I have made to CRP, nature always presents me with a surprise.
We loved to be out in the Park, talking to our guests. I am not known for my short stories and assume everyone shares my love and passion for the Park. Thank goodness Bonnie would remind me occasionally that the Sun does go down and the Park does close soon.
Todd and Melinda were married here on top of the Chimney, creating such wonderful memories. Our families have been here along with so many of our dear friends. They all concur how special this place is.
All of this would not have been possible were it not for our exceptional associates through the years and present today. To them, my humble thanks for being so much a part of this and making my life so fulfilled. You are and always will be so very special to me.
Special thanks also to my step-son Steve Mahfood, who was General Manager during the early 1980s and left us with our Interstate Highway Standards Bridge across the Rocky Broad River as well as being helpful during these negotiations.
At our favorite event, our Annual Easter Sunrise Service, a minister mentioned in his sermon that the Morses do not own the Park, God does. The Morses are just stewards of the land. I talked to him later and assured him that our family has always felt this way.
And of course, I would like to acknowledge the contribution my son Todd has made, not only during the two decades of managing the Park, but for such good prior counseling throughout the years. He will be leaving at some point with the best record of stewardship of all.
We are here to announce the changing of the more than a century of stewardship by the Morse family to the fine people of the State of North Carolina. I wish you God's speed in the future stewardship of the Park. It has and will continue to be an awesome, humbling and rewarding responsibility you are entering into. Perhaps there is a touch of divine intervention in all of this.