An eco-friendly tourist destination will soon be coming to Brown County after receiving the necessary approvals from the Brown County Commissioners and Area Planning Commission.
If all goes according to the developer’s plan, Harmony Tree Resort will be up and running sometime next year on what was once Rawhide Ranch property off of State Road 135 South.
The property had been zoned residential (R1), but the petitioner, ADF Construction, requested it be changed to general business (GB). Their request was approved by the APC on Oct. 27.
The new owners presented their plans for the visitor destination that will offer 200 lodging opportunities on the 56-acre site.
On the property there is one vacant lot, one commercially developed lot and two adjacent lots with single-family homes.
“We wanted to give some lodging options that are unique, really a continuation of what they currently offer at there on a bigger, better scale,” he said.
“We will beautify the existing structures.”
Rawhide Ranch was developed under three special exceptions to allow various business use.
Some of the envisioned business uses require ADF to be under GB or accommodation business (AB) zoning, as current special exceptions would not authorize the potential winery and restaurants envisioned on the property for the future.
The new developers will build upon what is already on the property. The office area will become a spa and the main house will become the check-in area with workout and game rooms for guests.
New additions will include rooms made from shipping containers, A-frame cabins, primitive camping amenities, an on-site winery, two restaurants, a cafe, spa, horseback riding, botanical gardens and a wedding event center.
Copies of commercial use driveway permits were provided to and approved by the state in 2001. Soil analyses have been conducted for the structures the current owners wish to build and results have been submitted to the state.
Corey Flick with Harmony Tree Resorts said that visitors will be able to find unique stays and will be given an opportunity to see and experience nature when they stay at the resort. Flick lives in Brown County.
Rawhide Ranch once had access to the Brown County State Park, which is adjacent to the west side of the property. Flick said they hope to continue that program.
They also hope to add to the Brown County Music Center experience, offering shuttles to shows to ensure concert-goer safety.
Flick said they also hope to create job opportunities in the county by bringing in 60 full-and part-time employees, offering paid time off and insurance packages.
They also plan to partner with the high school for job fairs and Indiana University’s tourism school as well as providing seasonal educational opportunities.
In the slower months, they plan to keep business going by offering different types of package stays.
With a venue space for weddings and events, those behind the project also said they would offer the use of the botanical gardens on the grounds to provide flowers and greenery for clients.
There was already a restaurant on-site at Rawhide Ranch and Harmony Tree Resort plans to offer pizzas and a “pub grub” type of menu out of that kitchen, Flick said during the commissioners meeting on Nov. 3.
“We want to bring in smoked steak, kind of as a feature,” he said of future plans for the restaurant space.
“We did a lot of research around what we currently have in the county. We felt we didn’t have anything kind of highlighting that and what we have around, so we want to bring that up and do more of an upscale menu, but not too far priced out for folks to eat at.”
The Honor Village on the site will be a place of safety for veterans battling PTSD, Flick said. They also plan to offer equine therapy and other means to help veterans “heal in nature,” he said.
“We 110 percent support citizens who have served our country,” he said.
Sticking to the eco-friendly theme, ADF is in the “discovery phase” of getting solar power for energy regeneration with Duke Energy.
As for their timeline, they’re hoping for a finish date in the middle of 2022.
“We’ve hit a headwind finding qualified labor,” Flick said. “We want to keep as much labor in the county, but we will probably source from Indy or Bloomington.”
Flick discussed a few septic options at the commissioners meeting. Flick said he had spoken with the Brown County Health Department a few times in regards to presby systems and a wastewater treatment plant.
The state is also doing some searching, Flick said.
“We will make sure we meet and exceed all septic requirements in the state and county,” he said.
Craig Finke and Jamie Perkins, also with ADF, have done projects in the Caribbean before. Perkins and his wife moved to Brown County from Johnson County. Finke is from Columbus.
All those in favor
Five individuals spoke in favor of the project at the APC meeting on Oct. 27.
Local realtor Robyn Rosenburg spoke in favor saying that by bringing in young employees and young families, the business “has all the positives we’ve been looking for.”
Brad Cox from Cox Creek Mill Studio spoke about how the new destination is along the lines of Brown County. In addition to the studio, Cox owns the Nashville tour trains.
“This project, I don’t know any of these guys, but I think this project is really something different. It’s along the lines of Brown County. It’s sacred to me to keep this place like no other place. I think this has lined up with Brown County,” he said.
Local musician Rich Hardesty moved to the county a few years ago after visiting often since he was a child.
“I love Brown County,” he said. “That’s why I live here.”
As a musician, Hardesty said that when he does a gig in the county, his fans often have trouble finding a room. Hardesty appreciated that there would be more rooms available for visitors.
“When (the band) America came (to the Brown County Music Center) before things went bad (with COVID), many of my friends said they can’t get a room. I love the fact when the doors open they’ll have a safe place to stay. They’ll spend their money in the town and stay longer,” Hardesty said.
Matt Mellen said that that the project could be a place for generations of families to make memories.
“I see this as a place I can come with my young professional friends to explore Brown County and all the great opportunities,” he said.
Resident Sherrie Mitchell was opposed to changing the zoning to general business for the project, which would allow more business uses on the property in the future.
She said the commission’s job when looking at a rezone like this was not to decide whether the business was a good idea after listening to a presentation.
When questioned by Mitchell as to what the role of the commission was, commission member Kara Hammes read the definition of the APC’s role.
“We pay reasonable regard to the comprehensive plan, current conditions and character of current structures and uses in each district, the most desirable use for land in which each district is adapted and the conservation of property values throughout the jurisdiction and responsible development and growth,” she said.
“That is why I’ve made several comments about what they’re proposing is in line with uses that have existed there for years and years.”
Mitchell said that she had not heard anyone address the comprehensive plan, which should guide community development, or mention appreciation or depreciation of property values because of the new resort.
“You also must consider if you rezone 56 acres general business that means Walmart, Menard’s, warehouses, everything can go in there and they don’t need your approval,” Mitchell said.
“This stays forever. When they sell it to Walmart and Menard’s, you have to consider those things. It isn’t about this business, it is about the zoning. Please do your jobs.”
Flick spoke after Mitchell and said he appreciated the opposing opinion.
“We’re definitely not going to sell to Walmart,” he said.
“We do not want to rezone just to sell to something. We want to positively impact the community and pull on the resources that we have here. Help the county with jobs, help the county with resources, transportation, food and beverage, and nature exposure and vets.”
Hammes said when looking at the comprehensive plan and how it guides commercial business development the commission should look at if the business is along a state road and the topography of the property.
“This is along a state road,” she noted.
“The topography is going to limit a lot of what potential uses could be up there. … It’s not far from other commercial and industrial uses. … It’s not like it’s out of the realm of business uses along a state road and not in line with what it’s been used for in the past.”
APC member Randy Jones said that rezoning is something the commission needs to “give serious deliberation.”
“Because what can happen is once it has been rezoned, it does open up for potential development that doesn’t necessarily have to come under the purview of the APC,” he said.
“There are some other things that will have to come back in. It is something that we need to take very seriously, I consider us as the gatekeepers of the development plan and the comprehensive plan and I don’t take that lightly.”
Commission member Andy Voils agreed with Jones. He said that’s why they ask about intended use of the land, to make sure it stays in line.
“It is forever. Once you change zoning it probably isn’t going to be changed back,” he said.
“I think that’s why it’s important that we get as much information here with what their plans are … I want to know who’s doing it, where they’ve been, do they have experience with this, are they going to be successful? Because I want to see this community grow and all the advantages that come with bringing more people into the community.”
“This is literally close to my backyard. … We don’t take it lightly and that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re involved,” he continued.
The commission voted unanimously to make a favorable recommendation to the county commissioners who approved the rezone at their Nov. 3 meeting.
When asked by resident Tim Clark, Commissioner Diana Biddle said the county is not obligated for any tax subsidies for the development and no support funding has been requested.