It’s now up to the county commission

Save - or lose - Rickwood Caverns

First, I’m going to tell you what to do to avert a disaster. Then I’ll explain the situation.

Every citizen in this county who doesn’t want a major outdoor recreation facility we enjoy to be closed forever – talking about Rickwood Caverns – needs to contact their Blount County commissioner and commission chairman immediately and tell them they want Rickwood Caverns saved.

They can save it. It’s exclusively up to them to do it. They have it in their power, and the way has been paved. But they have to act immediately. The fate of Rickwood Caverns, for better or worse and whether they like it or not, will be this administration’s and this commission’s lasting legacy. Put it to them in just those words. I emphasize the word immediately. Do it now. There’s a guaranteed window of opportunity to save the park. But it is going to close soon.

Now to the explanation. Readers of this newspaper know that Rickwood Caverns State Park is in grave danger of being closed. For those of you who don’t know about Rickwood Caverns State Park, it’s – unfortunately – “one of the best kept secrets of the state park system” to quote an outdoor – recreation expert.

It’s the jewel in the county’s crown of bona fide tourism attractions.

It’s a strategic resource of inestimable value for the future economic development of the entire county. Nearby outdoor opportunities are critical to attracting new industry.

“It’s a gold mine,” said one member of a neighboring county commission delegation that visited the park over a year ago.

It also happens to be a fine place for us local folks and families to go to spend a summer day swimming, picnicking, cave touring, hiking, and/or camping out over night if you’re in the RV scene.

Fact: were it not for the recent heroic efforts of several good friends of Blount County – Hinton Mitchem, Jack Biddle, Elwyn Thomas, Billy Irvin, and Jim Folsom Jr. – the closing would already be a done deal. What those gentlemen did was buy us a reprieve for a short period of time from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resource (ADCNR) who runs the state parks. Think of it as a temporary stay of execution, and thank Hinton Mitchem and Jack Biddle especially for that.

The reprieve was granted specifically to give the Blount County Commission an opportunity to present a case to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) for keeping the park open permanently through some kind of joint venture between ADCRN and the county commission.

ADNCR commissioner Barnett Lawley said last week he’s waiting on the Blount County Commission to contact him. Details of the joint arrangement will have to be crafted in a meeting between the two organizations and that probably won’t be a Sunday school picnic, but it’s do-able.

The commission is understandably cautious about entering into negotiations. To some extent, its uncharted waters as to what level of cost the commission and the county would incur. Having said that, there is good evidence – including from ADCNR’s own chief accountant – that the park can be made profitable with a reasonable amount of effort – something the state parks division has never seen fit to expend, with their tunnel vision focus on half a dozen major parks to the misery of the rest of them, including Rickwood.

To be frank, the commission has been approachable about saving Rickwood, but they must show a sense of urgency. They must be willing to take a reasonable risk, be visionary and have a willingness to weigh the future strategic possibilities.

Rickwood Caverns is in David Cochran’s District 1. He and Commission Chairman David Standridge must take the initiative to get the commission to Montgomery. Thus, they will have taken the first step of many on the road to Rickwood Caverns’ bright future.

In years to come, the fate of Rickwood Caverns will be seen as either a visionary achievement, or a dismal failure, depending on the outcome of the next few weeks. We the citizens of Blount County can make the difference. Step up now and respond with a call. Tom Ryan 237-2990. Waymon Pitts 601-5836. Robert Bullard 237- 4403. David Cochran 492-8982. David Standridge 625-4191.

Do it for your children and their children to have an outdoor wonderland to enjoy, if for no other reason.
Chester Thomas
Friends of Rickwood Caverns
State Park