Anakeesta Project Breaks Ground
About a hundred people turned out for the groundbreaking of the $47 million Anakeesta project in Gatlinburg.
The site at 576 Parkway, adjacent to Pi Beta Phi Elementary School and across from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, will be a “Chondola” station for the 12 minute, 1/2- mile ride up the mountain. On the mountaintop, work is underway at a 70-acre site that will include shops and restaurants in “Firefly Village,” treetops connected by bridges, hiking trails, a birds-of-prey exhibit, a children’s treehouse area and racing ziplines coming more than 1,000 feet back down the mountain.
Managing Partner Bob Bentz said Anakeesta is shooting for a mid-June opening. In July will come the first single- rail “mountain coaster” in the United States, he said.
In about a year, guests will also be able to stay on the mountain, in 35 to 45 treehouses or in cabins, Bentz said.
“We have multiple phases for the mountain project,” he said. Anakeesta is expected to create about 130 jobs.
Work on the site in Gatlinburg itself should take about four months. “Chondolas” are a combination of gondolas and a chairlift; guests will have a choice of riding a four-seater chairlift or a six-person enclosed gondola. The station will include a Savannah Bee Company retail store. That Georgia-based company offers honey and luxury health and beauty products made with honey.
“I think it’s going to be a great economic boost to downtown Gatlinburg, as well as the county,” said Mark Adams, president and CEO of the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. Leisure and convention travelers will probably be interested in Anakeesta, as they are in Ripley’s Aquarium and similar attractions, he said.
“I think it’s going to extend people’s stay in Gatlinburg for another day,” Adams said. “They’ve got a full day of activities planned up on the mountain.”
The Margaritaville resort is going up across the Parkway from the Chodola station, and two new hotels will open on Airport Road in the spring, he said.
Karen Bentz, wife and business partner to Bob Bentz, thanked a long list of people and organizations that are helping the project, from Gatlinburg officials to Anakeesta’s designers and builders, Citizens National Bank and The Peoples Bank, and state tourism officials.
Dave Jones, East Tennessee division manager for the state Department of Tourist Development, said the state hasn’t been directly involved in Anakeesta but will help market it like other area attractions.
Bob Bentz said his family bought a patch of mountainside land about 50 years ago, and five years back he and Karen Bentz bought adjacent land from Pi Beta Phi, which had owned it since 1912. The Bentzes hadn’t decided what to do with the land, but also got the 2.1-acre Parkway site and an aerial easement over the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, enabling connection with the mountainside property.
They spent 16 months working with the city on a use, he said.
“Anakeesta” means “place of high ridges” or “place of high balsam” in
Cherokee, Bob Bentz said. The mountaintop site offers great views of downtown Gatlinburg and the surrounding area, he said.
A signature part of the attraction willbe the tree canopy walk: 20 bridges between trees, up to 60 feet in the air. The Chondolas can carry a maximum of 1,100 people per hour, and owners expect the average stay to be two or three hours, so busy times could see up to 2,000 people on the mountain at once, Bentz said.
They haven’t settled on admission prices, but expect to offer two tiers: a base charge for the Chondola ride and most elements of Anakeesta, and an extra fee for use of the ziplines and coaster, he said.
The treehouse rooms will have air conditioning, gas fireplaces and bathrooms; the only streets will be a few emergency roads, according to Bob Bentz.
The Anakeesta project was pushed back a month or so by November’s wildfire, which also burned two houses owned by the Bentzes and the home ofMarketing Director Michele Canney. The project site didn’t take much substantial damage, but a walking trail through the burned-over area on the back of the mountain will serve as a memorial to the fire, Bob Bentz said.
Bob and Karen Bentz are both former National Park Service employees. Karen Bentz is a Knoxville native, and they met while attending the University of Tennessee, Bob Bentz said.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines
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