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Brown County Ziplines Could Add Jobs But Pose Financial Risk

Zipliners unhook from line

Photo: Jason Pear / WTIU News

More groups like this one need to patronize the Valley Branch Retreat if it's to reach its job creation goals.

When Gary Bartels inherited about 500 acres of land in Brown County, he knew the land was equal parts risk and opportunity. He and his wife could retire early or he and his sons Chris and Lance could pay the hefty property taxes and slowly reinvest in the property. So Bartels put the choice to his kids.

“We can subdivide the property and sell it all off and you guys can fend for yourselves…or…I’m thinking about building an adventure retreat,Bartels told his sons. “But that means you have to commit to working weekends and working during the summer.  It’s your choice.  You’ve got two weeks.”

In less than the allotted fortnight, the boys decided to keep the land and give up their free time to develop it. Thirteen years later there are paintball fields, a meeting lodge, mountain bike trails and now, zip lines through the tree canopy. Brown County tourism officials have no trouble getting visitors to come tour the brightly-colored trees each fall – it is the busiest time of the year for the area.  But until recently, there was not much opportunity to see them like this.

The installation of a set of nine zip lines could create as many as 30 jobs in the coming months. Many will be twenty-something guides either fresh out of college (or taking a break from it), who teach riders how to use the zip lines.  What is a zip line, you ask?  Basically it is a steel cable suspended between two fixed points – usually a few dozen feet up a couple trees – which people ride along using a contraption which looks like a pair of pulleys and a set of handlebars.

Bartels, formerly an engineer for auto parts manufacturer ArvinMeritor, cannot say how much of his own money he has spent installing the zip lines – the costs all blend into more than a decade adding amenities to his Valley Branch Retreat.  But he acknowledges he is taking a sizable financial risk in a time where pennies are still being pinched.

“I’m the maintenance guy. I’m the promoter. I’m the accountant. I’m even a ref, maybe eventually a guide,” Bartels says.  “I’ve put a lot of hours in – a lot more hours than I put in working for Arvin. It became clear to me that if I was gone, it would take two people to replace me. And looking at the amount of revenues generated, it could be a struggle for my two sons to keep this place afloat without selling it.”

But Bartels should get some help from Brown County officials.  He says he’s wary that Midwesterners looking for a cheap “staycation” may not gravitate to ziplining, but Brown County Economic Development Commission President Tom Vornholt says it is a step toward a change in the overall climate in a county known more for antiquing than for adrenaline rushes.

“I think you don’t typically think of Indiana as an adventure state, so this is a great opportunity for us to start to create that atmosphere that ‘here’s an opportunity for an adventure in Indiana,’” Vornholt says.

So Bartels loads customers into a decommissioned but still camouflaged two-and-a-half ton military truck and takes them on a bumpy five-minute drive uphill to the first of nine lines.

Bartels acknowledges he will need word-of-mouth to spread if he’s to reach his goal of 30 new jobs. But if the investment of this one small business owner bears fruit, the area at large may benefit from the new clientele Bartels brings in. Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jane Ellis says previous forays into adventure tourism have exhibited just such a multiplier effect.

“It’s also raised an awareness for us here in Brown County of some of the things that we may lack,” Ellis says.  “Particularly the mountain bikers were looking for was a brewery, a brewpub. Through that some people got together and we now have a brewpub.”

It is still up in the air whether the economy will create stress or relieve it for Gary Bartels, whose eyes well up when he wonders whether he will recoup his investment.

“There was times that, during the build, was very difficult,” he said.  “So this was like I needed the stress relief.  I felt so much better after zipping and having that experience.  I said ‘yes, this is what people need.’”

It is a relief the tourism-heavy Brown County economy hopes it gets to feel, too.

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