California ditches Empire Mine tourism project in Grass Valley, citing safety concerns, costs

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GRASS VALLEY, Calif. – After spending $3.5 million, California has scrapped a plan more than two decades in the making to turn a legendary Nevada County gold mine into a tourist destination.

Officials recently announced that they would spend no more money on the Empire Mine project in Grass Valley, which was halted in 2012 because of concerns about structural safety, The Sacramento Bee reported Thursday (http://bit.ly/1ja6ip0 ).

As many as one-third of the beams installed to support the horizontal tunnel intended to take tourists into the mine may have been weakened by corrosion, state parks officials said. The determination followed a 2012 inspection report by the state fire marshal.

The Department of Parks and Recreation said it could cost $1.4 million or more to make repairs at the site, plus untold amounts in long-term maintenance, the Bee reported.

“We just did not feel it was the wisest decision to spend additional dollars on a project where we didn’t know where the end was,” Chief Deputy Parks Director Aaron Robertson told the Bee.

The state parks system is facing a $1 billion maintenance shortfall, the Bee reported.

But supporters of the mine project questioned the safety concerns and said it has major tourism potential and should not be abandoned.

“This represents an enormous loss to not only the community and the park system, but also to the taxpayers of this state…,” Larry Skinner, president of the Empire Mine Parks Association, which secured state funding for the project, said in a letter to a state park official. “Is this really what you want us to do?”

The mine’s 367 miles of shafts produced gold worth $8 billion in today’s money over its 106-year history, according to the Bee.

The surrounding park includes hiking trails, gardens and a manor and draws 110,000 visitors a year. The mine tour was intended to enhance the attraction.

The $3.5 million that was spent paid for, among other items, an 1880s-style visitors centre and ticket office, where tourists were to pick up their hardhats, raincoats and headlamps for the mine. It also funded battery-powered engines for the underground excursions, the Bee reported.

“This was not an easy decision,” said Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the parks department. “But it is the best decision at this time, particularly because of the public safety concerns.”

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Information from: The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com

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