Officials consider restoration of Laurel Lake Youth Camp in Townsend
By Iva Butler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Restoring Laurel Lake in Townsend was the topic of a group of Blount officials, tourism experts and Laurel Valley residents Friday afternoon.
Blount County Commissioner and Townsend resident Gordon Wright is spearheading the effort to reestablish Laurel Lake Youth Camp.
The lake and youth camp were located on property across the road from the entrance of Laurel Valley Subdivision. All the people at the meeting raised their hands in support of pursuing the project.
“I’ve enlisted more support from Blount Countians than anything I’ve ever done,” Wright said.
“My vision is to turn an eyesore, which is now a snake- and mosquito-infested swamp, into something usable. I haven’t heard of anybody being against it. It could be a true asset to Blount County if we could pull it off,” Wright said.
Laurel Lake water came from Short Creek, a smaller stream coming out of Little Valley and two other springs. “That is the watershed of Laurel Valley,” Wright said.
Jim Hind is owner/operator of Richmont Inn in Laurel Valley overlooking the lake area.
“When we came up here in the 1980s, that was the most unbelievably beautiful lake. The water had a blue azure tint to it. If we got it back it would be a tremendous scenic impact for that area,” he said.
Chad Rochelle, owner/operator of Dogwood Cabins and a Laurel Valley resident, said “if the lake was back like it was, from a rental and property value standpoint, the value would be astronomical.”
Herb Handly, executive vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the lake was before his time, but “there is a lot of interest in bringing that lake back. There was a lot of interest several years ago.” That effort was unsuccessful.
“It would be great for Townsend as a destination point for visitors. I understand it was really a showplace,” Handly said.
Wright stressed that he would not be in favor of the project if it involved taxpayer dollars.
Ownership of the lake has changed over the years.
At first the City of Townsend owned the lake and youth camp property. Then in the 1980s the state of Tennessee informed the city the dam was dangerous. The city could not afford to do work on the dam, so Townsend City Commission turned the property over to the state.
The state then breached the dam and drained the lake. They later turned the property ownership over to Blount County.
Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell estimated that there is 135 acres of property involved in the lake area.
“I can’t find any data on the state level that shows the dam was unsafe,” Wright said. “I don’t understand why they had to drain the lake.
All they had to do was open a valve to drain the structure. They did not have to damage the dam,” he said.
Wright said he had built dams in the United States and Africa.
“The only hole in that dam now was created by the state of Tennessee. The base of the dam is stronger than any dam I’ve ever built. Overall the condition of the dam is good to excellent,” he said.
Wright said he was best friends with Gary Davis, son of youth camp caretaker Pete Davis, and that in their youth they spent a lot of time swimming, fishing and hiking on the property. They also took part in the local high school football camps.
In fact, Wright said he learned to scuba drive there in 1961.
Mitchell, who also took advantage of the lake when he was growing up, said the Parks and Recreation Commission could possibly be involved in the project. Parks and Rec Executive Vice President Joe Huff said disc/frisbee golf is big right now and that could be good for the site, he said.
Wright said he has talked to Alcoa and Maryville officials and they would be in favor of using the lake as a emergency reservoir in case of another drought. Both cities get their water out of Little River and if the flow got too low, Laurel Lake water could be partially emptied into Little River to increase the flow for a few days.
The lake could also be used to enhance the firefighting capabilities in Laurel Valley and the surrounding areas, providing water for pumper trucks, he said.
Wright also said he has talked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about hydropower. The idea is to generate electricity from the dam to operate the recreation area and also generate revenue for the county.
He suggested hiking and nature trails could be installed on the property. There could be picnicking facilities for families and outings for groups, such as churches, and an area for business meeting retreats like the camp was in the past. People could canoe on the lake and there could be tent camping sites, he said.
Wright said Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency could be asked to stock the lake with fish, another draw for the lake.
The lake could be used to enhance the existing wetlands in the area, he added.
Dormitories could eventually be built back, providing space for youth group activities.
Wright suggested partnering with the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Museum in Townsend to provide living space for youths visiting the museum and lake.
A restored Laurel Lake would bring in extra tourism, which would help both Townsend and Blount County, he said
State Sen. Doug Overbey suggested the group come up with a concept plan and then present its vision to the top state people in Nashville.
Overbey said both he and state Rep. Art Swann would be willing to set up such a meeting.
Swann said “we need to determine where the big roadblocks are and whether we can wade through or if it would be insurmountable.”
“I think the argument could be made that this would greatly enhance the Townsend area as a destination point. People here remember what we had there. It was a special place,” he said.
The group asked Byron Begley, owner/operator of Little River Outfitters, to chair and organize a committee to work on the project.
Mitchell suggested “the committee put together more of a whole vision for the project. I think you could capture the audience with the lake. Everything else would just be amenities.”
The next move will now be for the committee to nail down a concept plan.