Laurel Lake effort needs wide support
The interest is there. No doubt about that. People who remember what Laurel Lake was like in the ’80s before the reservoir was drained, express enthusiasm for restoring what is now “a snake- and mosquito-infested swamp” near Townsend.
Blount County Commissioner and Townsend resident Gordon Wright is again trying to organize an effort to restore the lake and re-establish it as a recreational attraction.
Interested Blount officials, tourism experts and Laurel Valley residents met Friday to explore the idea.
The question is: Where’s the money?
The history is this: Back in the days of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps, young men employed in the Depression-era CCC jobs program built Laurel Lake.
Water came from Short Creek, a smaller stream coming out of Little Valley and two other springs. The watershed was blocked by a dam 1,000 feet long and up to 45 feet high. The lake covered 48-acres.
That was in 1935. By the early 1950s, Maryville Kiwanians spurred a countywide effort with other civic clubs to rehab a house at the lake and build two barracks. Voilà: Laurel Lake Youth Camp.
Reservations were handled by the Blount County Chamber of Commerce. The nonprofit facility was rented by Scouts and church groups. High school football teams held preseason practices at the camp.
Over the years, usage dropped and the camp was closed in the 1980s. Then the state of Tennessee informed the city of Townsend that the dam was dangerous. The city couldn’t afford to fix the dam and transferred ownership to the state. The state didn’t take on repairs either. Instead the dam was breached, the lake drained and ownership turned over to Blount County. Questions remain today about the need to destroy the lake.
Besides the prospect of a new youth camp, today’s Laurel Lake supporters offer other benefits that could accrue with restoration: added tourism, backup water reservoir in case of drought, fishing and hiking opportunities, maybe some hydropower generation, water for firefighting pumper trucks, picnicking, canoeing, a site for disc/frisbee golf, camping, enhanced wetlands.
Supporters of Laurel Lake have a beautiful vision of a pristine mountain lake with all the amenities and opportunities that could bring. Now they need a concept plan. Byron Begley, owner/operator of Little River Outfitters, is to chair a committee to work on the project.
There is a case to be made for restoring Laurel Lake. That’s for sure. One thing else is certain. To succeed, the project will require a sustained effort strong enough to weather inevitable challenges and disappointments along the way.
The goal is worthy, but the economy is limping. Inspire widespread community backing and develop a realistic plan based on private fundraising — then supporters will have a shot at success.
Advocates for Laurel Lake also will have to achieve government cooperation — just don’t expect that cooperation to be measured in taxpayers’ greenbacks. With that understood, go for it.