Originally created 09/06/98

Promising horizons



LINCOLNTON, Ga. -- Toye Hill squints into the bright sun as he drives his boat north along 25 miles of pristine, undeveloped shoreline -- dreaming of a brighter future for his community.

On one deserted cove, he envisions a conference center flanked with a hotel and golf course. Nearby, perhaps a water park -- or an amphitheater for the Bluegrass Festival that comes to Lincoln County each May.

"This is probably the only industry that Lincoln County can recruit," said Mr. Hill, who chairs a committee hoping to convince the Corps of Engineers to relinquish some if its lakefront land for development.

Lincoln County's effort to carve a resort from wilderness around Elijah Clark State Park isn't unique. At any given time, there are as many as half a dozen development proposals being discussed.

"Part of the attraction to developers is that Thurmond lake has a lot more collar-lands than most other corps lakes," said Jim Parker, spokesman for the corps' Savannah District. Collar-lands are lands which surround the bodies of water.

Other corps lakes, such as Russell and Hartwell upstream from Thurmond, have much less land adjoining the reservoirs.

Thurmond initially had 84,000 acres around the lake. Today, the corps still owns 76,000 acres -- more land than the 70,000 surface acres of the lake which was authorized by Congress in 1944.

"The Truman Administration's policy on land acquisition was, at that time, if you're taking land and the owner wanted to sell all of it, we bought it," Mr. Parker said. "Today, if we needed 50 acres from someone who had 300, we'd just buy 50."

The legacy of such policies linger today in counties like McCormick, where the corps owns almost a third of the county; and in Lincoln, where thousands of acres of corps lands have been off tax rolls for half a century.

Mr. Hill and the Lincoln County Recreation Authority want to use all of Elijah Clark State Park's 447 acres, along with 400 additional acres of corps land and 250 acres of private land nearby.

The end product, a $25 million resort with a 300-room lodge and a 36-hole golf course, would attract groups from as far away as Atlanta, Greenville and Columbia. A recent survey concluded 87 percent of responding companies would utilize such a facility.

The project, endorsed by county officials, has also attracted some support from Congressman Charlie Norwood.

"There's not many areas on the lake where there's no development, no one to be impacted," Mr. Hill said. "Right now there's not even a single dock in that whole area."

Elsewhere on the vast reservoir, Arkansas-based Cooper Communities is working to change federal law to allow the corps to transfer -- without competitive bidding -- an additional 900 acres of lakefront land.

In 1986, the company convinced the corps to release 3,159 acres of once-public land, from which the existing Savannah Lakes Village resort was created. Now Cooper wants to expand that development.

However, the corps, citing a 1986 federal law that made wildlife management a "necessary" purpose of the Thurmond project, rejected the request, saying it would require a change in federal laws protecting public lands.

The proposal also drew opposition from groups like Quail Unlimited, which has its national headquarters in South Carolina -- and which operates a quail habitat project on the contested land.

Cooper Communities' consultant, John McAllister Jr., said his firm is continuing its effort to convince Congress and the corps that releasing the land would benefit South Carolina and McCormick County.

"We're going through the business now of letting people know our intentions," he said. "We're confident we'll succeed."

Cooper has offered the corps a trade: 2,048 acres in Aiken County in exchange for 900 acres of corps land along the lake, where Cooper has sold waterfront lots for $100,000 or more.

The Aiken County parcel, called Augusta Plantation, includes 3.5 miles of frontage on the South Edisto River and has 1,578 acres of planted pines, 167 acres of river bottom and 283 acres of saw timber.

Other development proposals at Thurmond Lake include Fort Gordon's 900-acre recreation area, where officials are mulling a plan to contract out operation of the park to a private developer who may add more amenities, including a possible tournament ramp for fishing events.

Informal discussions about new features have ranged from bigger campgrounds to sophisticated amenities, such as golf or a hotel and lodge.

The corps' Mr. Parker said the project was discussed as recently as June during a meeting with corps officials.

"In general, the topic was contracting out and possibly subleasing parks," he said. "They're generally looking toward contract management versus running it themselves."

South Carolina officials who operate the Hickory Knob State Resort Park in McCormick County have also explored further development through the use of private, for-profit companies, Mr. Parker said.

Generally, the corps is willing to evaluate such requests, he said. But there is one major stipulation: Any amenities must be open to the public.

Closer to Augusta, a Texas-based partnership that bought Tradewinds Marina & Yacht Club earlier this year may further develop the already-designated marina site near Pollards Corner.

Dallas-based Lakeside Management Co. already owns about 15 marinas and hopes to add amenities including a major boat launching ramp suitable for large bass tournaments; retail facilities along the waterfront; and possibly additional rental cottages.

Columbia County's chamber of commerce mounted an unsuccessful campaign last year to convert Wildwood Park into a resort with a golf course and hotel.

Although county officials ultimately decided not to allow private development at the site, the interest remains.

"There's always a chance, if the right development proposal came along," said Bob Reich, executive director of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. "But for right now, there are no pending plans for anything new."

Although interest in Thurmond Lake's unspoiled shorelines is spiraling, the potential for intense development -- such as what exists at lakes Lanier and Hartwell -- remains unlikely.

"We've released lands in the past," Mr. Parker said. "But in the future it becomes less likely, because a lot of land at Thurmond is now held as mitigation lands for Russell and for other specific purposes."

Thurmond Lake, he added, has been one of the last lakes for which intense development interest has surfaced, possibly because it doesn't have the interstate highway access other reservoirs have.

"Until recently, it's pretty much been one of those undiscovered gems, so to speak," he said. "But over the last eight years, we've seen a lot of increased interest in doing more up there."