Publicado por: Ricardo Shimosakai | 04/12/2012

No boundaries for wheelchairs: Resort proposed for Lebanon to offer fishing, hiking, outdoor activities

LEBANON, Maine — In the next several years, Geoffrey and Michael Howe hope to build the world’s first outdoor recreation park for wheelchair users and their families, right here in Lebanon.

The resort, to be sited on an 80-acre piece of land along the Salmon Falls River, would feature the Rip Chair, developed by Howe & Howe Technologies. The chair, which company Chief Operating Officer Brian Bair described as “a wheelchair ATV,” would enable wheelchair users to enjoy hiking trails, fishing ponds, and scenic views associated with the Maine wilderness.

Geoffrey, CEO of Howe & Howe Technologies, hopes the resort, with the help of the Rip Chair, will instill hope and freedom of outdoors in wheelchair users, many of whom became handicapped very suddenly. Some, he said, became bound in wheelchairs after having led an active lifestyle.

“We knew we had something big when we made the Rip Chair,” said Geoffrey. “We knew we had to drive this forward.”

About a year ago, Geoffrey, and his brother Michael, the company’s president, began forming a visionary council for building the new outdoor recreation park and resort. The council, comprised of users of wheelchairs, directed the way the facility should be built.

The entire park will be built for, and run by, wheelchair users.

Geoffrey said there will not be an employee position in the park that would be difficult to be fulfilled by a handicapped person.

“They are going to see cooks in wheelchairs, they are going to see recreation directors in wheelchairs,” said Bair.

The resort, said Geoffrey, will give wheelchair users a week or so to “take some time off mentally” and enjoy the outdoors with their family members or friends, before coming back to a world of remote ramps, inconveniently-built bathroom stalls, and doors that are difficult to open.

The resort was built to accommodate about 42 people at a time — about six wheel chair clients and their families or group of friends. The goal is to ensure visitors are able to enjoy the outdoor experience without overcrowding.

“We don’t want the Disney World effect,” said Bair. “You are going to feel it’s just you and your family.”

As part of the vision for the project, people who use wheelchairs, and their families, would be flown into the resort free of charge, and would stay at the resort for about a week, also free of charge.

According to Geoffrey, the idea for providing a free resort environment for Outdoors Again came from wanting to make the technology of the Rip Chair available while recognizing the high price tag for the chair.

Rather than having to transfer into the Rip Chair from their wheelchairs, handicapped individuals simply roll into the Rip Chair, and stay inside their own wheelchairs while venturing in uneven outdoor terrain.

“This is more of an exoskeleton for your wheelchair,” said Blair.

He said the Rip Chair “will go everywhere the ATVs will go,” including through mud pits and over logs.

The chair is electronically controlled, has 25 horsepower, and has tracks instead of wheels. It can adjust to left- or right-handed people.

Howe & Howe Technologies already owned the 80-acre piece of land near Salmon Falls River that will be used for the resort. Previously, this land was used as a testing site for the company, but the site had been moved to another location.

To ensure that clients and their families can stay and travel to the resort for free, constant fundraising would be a part of the resort’s operation, said Bair.

He said that getting the resort built, and keeping it running, will take a heavy focus on foundation-based grants. Staff are also looking forward to incorporating creative ways to keep the resort financially afloat.

“We have got to raise $20 million for this,” said Geoffrey. “This is not a small venture. We are doing ‘go big or go home.'”

For now, the project is still deep in the fundraising stage, said Bair. The ground work alone is expected to cost about $1 million. This work includes building trails, clearing trees, installing utilities, and establishing building foundation and access.

So far, about $250,000 has been raised for the project.

Although the Howe brothers have not yet submitted site plans for the project to the town of Lebanon for approval, Bair said building designs and ground work designs have already been drawn up.

Bair said the hope is to have the facility built in three years.

“We could take years to raise the money. But we’re not going to — we’re going to raise it now,” he said.

This spring, Outdoors Again is holding a Walk and Roll fundraising event, in which participants will walk, or roll in wheelchairs, from Portland to Washington, D.C. Those participating will be free to travel for as long of a distance as they wish, and Bair said he expects to pick up as many as 3,000 to 4,000 participants by the time the event comes to a finish 600 miles away from Portland. The whole event, expected to start around May, will take about two months.


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