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Boat ramp salvation: Bait shop owner wants watercraft back on Lake Lanier

POSTED: January 10, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Though Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed creating a bass tournament venue with a "megaramp" on Lake Lanier at Laurel Park, some fishing enthusiasts aren’t waiting for the state to take action. They want to get their boats back into the water now.

Kerry Hicks, owner of the Smokin’ Fisherman bait shop near Clermont, has been coordinating a fundraising effort to help extend the boat ramp at Clarks Bridge Park. Like nearly all ramps on Lanier, Clarks Bridge’s three lanes have been left high and dry as the lake’s water level has plummeted.

Hicks has signed an agreement with Gainesville and Hall County, which jointly operate the park under a lease from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to donate all materials and labor for the project.

He’s not a wealthy man, but he’s getting plenty of support from his friends.

"Everybody’s contributing because all the businesses have been hurt by this (low lake level)," Hicks said. "We plan to have this project done before the end of January."

He said many small businesses in the area, as well as the Clermont Bass Club and other local fishing groups, have donated about $100 each. And customers at his store have been dropping their spare change into a "ramp fund" bucket.

"So far we’ve raised a total of about $1,300," he said.

A similar effort is under way in Forsyth County, where another bait shop owner, Cindy Hammond, has been raising money to extend the boat ramps at the Forsyth-leased Charleston Park. But that project will be much more expensive than the one Hicks envisions, because it will use different construction methods.

"They’ve got to dam up that part of the lake so they can pour concrete all the way down to the end of the ramp," Hicks said. "I can’t afford that, so what I’m doing is a temporary ramp. I’m hoping the lake will never be this low again."

Lanier is about 20 feet below full pool, and with the extreme drought expected to last well into 2008, no one can predict how much farther it will drop.

Bob Gentile, assistant director of Hall County Parks and Leisure Services, said the corps invited all of its lease holders to a meeting.

"This was the same meeting at which the Forsyth County project was initiated," he said. "The corps wanted to know if we had any ideas or plans for making the lake accessible."

Gentile said the county hadn’t budgeted for any immediate improvements at Clarks Bridge. But Hicks approached the parks department and offered to come up with the resources for the project.

"He’s just taken the bull by the horns," Gentile said. "He’s entered into an agreement with us, but all the specifications and guidelines (for extending the ramp) will come from the corps."

One of Clarks Bridge’s three lanes is longer than the other two, so Hicks initially will concentrate his efforts on that one. At the end of the lane, there was an old, portable metal ramp, about 26 feet long.

"We found that when we flipped it over, the other side of the ramp was still in pretty good shape," he said.

A local welding business offered to put together a second ramp out of scrap metal, and Hicks said the old and new pieces will be welded together to create a portable ramp more than 50 feet long.

In addition, he said, Candler Concrete is donating enough poured concrete to add about 24 feet to the existing permanent ramp.

Hicks said as soon as the ramp expansion is completed, he wants to hold a fishing tournament to start raising money to renovate the second lane.

"The more money we get, the more lanes we can do," he said.

Gentile estimated that if the city and county were paying for all three lanes of the project, it would cost $5,000 to $7,500.

He emphasized that although many of the contributors to the fundraising effort, such as fishing clubs and convenience stores, will benefit if the ramp reopens, it is still a public facility.

"Part of the agreement is that the ramp will be open for everyone," Gentile said. "No one will have priority."

Hicks understands that, and said he just wants people to be able to experience the pleasure of fishing again.

"The big issue is that there’s no safe place to put boats in," he said. "If we can get just one lane open, it would help out a lot of folks."



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