0309FISHAUDPhil Sutton, assistant Hall County Administrator, discusses the Laurel Park fishing tournament project that is part of Gov. Sonny Perdue's Go Fish Georgia Initiative.
Not every drought has a silver lining, but Phil Sutton has found one.
"The drought's great for building ramps," said Sutton, Hall County's assistant administrator.
With Lake Lanier 17 feet below full pool, Sutton said now is the ideal time for Hall County to begin constructing another four-lane ramp at Laurel Park that could attract large-scale fishing tournaments to the area as part of Gov. Sonny Perdue's Go Fish Georgia Initiative.
The low lake level also has spurred projects to extend current boat ramps so anglers can get to the lake.
Perdue launched the Go Fish initiative late last year to jump-start the state's boating and fishing economy. Laurel Park at Lake Lanier is one of 10 approved sites statewide that will serve as stops along a possible 15-site bass trail.
Other Go Fish Georgia sites include a fish breeding center in Perry, and a fishing tournament site at Lake Hartwell comparable to the Laurel Park site.
Sutton said the Department of Natural Resources has designated $400,000 to the Laurel Park project through the governor's office, while Hall County has committed $520,000 in matching funds to expand the park's fishing facilities.
"This is for a very high-volume kind of (fishing) tournament," Sutton said. "The whole facility is being built for large-scale tournaments ... such as the Bassmasters Tournament that could attract 30,000 people."
In addition to building a second four-lane ramp at Laurel Park, Sutton said the Go Fish Georgia Initiative could push construction for a 5,000-square-foot, open-air spectator pavilion; a second parking lot entrance to create a one-way in, one-way out traffic system; and four-stall bathroom facilities for both men and women. Roughly 150 parking spaces for trucks and trailers could be added to the 206 parking spaces currently at Laurel Park, and two handicap-accessible floating docks with walkways also may be built.
Sutton said the county will submit design plans to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers within the next few weeks for review. The corps could approve site plans in the next few months, Sutton said, which would give the county the green light to begin the approximately six-month long construction project.
"We're trying to get the ramp done first and quickly," Sutton said. "While the lake is low, we're trying to get the ramps in as soon as possible."
He added that without the abnormally low lake levels, the county would have to take great pains to use a cofferdam to temporarily drop the lake level only eight feet for boat ramp construction. Cofferdams have been used to help in extending concrete boat ramps at Aqualand Marina in South Hall and Charleston Park in Forsyth County.
Sutton said with design plans already in the works, the Laurel Park site at Lake Lanier could be the state's first completed stop on the Go Fish Georgia bass trail.
Tom Oliver, Hall County Board of Commission Chairman, said some fishing tournaments scheduled to take place at Lake Lanier in the past year were canceled because of dwindling lake levels, but that is not indicative of the lake's future fishing economy.
"It's a concern, but we're somewhat optimistic. We're anticipating four to eight events within 12 months after construction," Oliver said of the Laurel Park site. "A huge (fishing) event could bring in $20 million for the county. Most of the visitors will spend money at local restaurants and hotels, or they'll rent a massive auditorium or the Georgia Mountains Center to present their awards. These events could be televised all over the world."
Sutton said upon completion, the Laurel Park project could translate to as much as $20 million spent annually in Hall County.
Hall County Commissioner Steve Gailey said a boost in the county's fishing economy could help keep taxes down.
"For every dollar that's spent, an extra three pennies comes in (one to each the school and county SPLOST funds, and to local option sales tax)," Gailey said. "When you can attract other tournaments coming in, that's big money. That's selling out every hotel in the county. Every restaurant would be full."
Although the Laurel Park Go Fish site someday may lure fisherman to the area by the thousands, local fisherman are presently struggling to find an operational boat ramp on Lake Lanier.
Only a handful of ramps remain open on the lake, including the one local fishermen extended at Clarks Bridge Park.
Kerry Hicks, owner of the Smokin' Fisherman near Clermont, collected more than $4,000 in donations from fisherman, rowers and customers to extend a ramp at Clarks Bridge Park. More than 18 feet of concrete was poured in January to accommodate a 45-foot temporary metal ramp extension to allow boaters access to the lake.
Sutton said the Clarks Bridge Park ramp remains the only ramp open on the north side of the lake. "Everybody's using it, they love it," Hicks said. "Any pretty day it's packed."
Even on a cold, grey day like Saturday -- with snow flurries at times -- a few boaters were using the ramp. Gailey said roughly 40 to 50 boaters use the ramp on a daily basis.
Hicks said he hopes to hold a fishing tournament at the new Laurel Park ramp upon its completion.
"Just think what it would do for the hotels, gas stations, bait stores, restaurants and whole economy of Lake Lanier," he said. "With that venue, we could handle any tournament that comes our way."