Park visits down sharply in recent years

Saturday, May 2, 2009 9:40 PM
Last updated Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010 11:44 PM
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At Augusta’s Lock and Dam Park, there are picnic shelters, grills and restrooms – but their usage is posting a distinct downward trend.

“We still rent out a lot of shelters,” said Rec­reation Director Tom Beck. “And this time of year, if you go out early, you’ll see lots of fishermen out there, too.”

The park, which adjoins New Sa­van­nah Bluff Lock and Dam, has been a recreational staple for south Augusta residents for much of the site’s 72-year history.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the project in 1937 and still owns the property, leases the park to the city of Augusta.

Visitation has declined in each of the past four fiscal years, dropping from 374,892 in 2005 to 201,265 last year.

Mr. Beck said there have been no large festivals at the park in recent years, but he believes the site provides an essential benefit for residents.

“It doesn’t pay for itself, but the quality of life benefit it provides is a definite factor,” he said. “If it wasn’t being used at all, it would become an issue. But we see it being used a lot.”

The Augusta Commission recently agreed to renew its lease, he said.

“It’s a 10-year lease that would run through 2018,” he said. “We’re responsible for both the park and the locks, which is personnel, utilities, maintenance – all the things that go with it.”

Operating the locks, both for traffic on the Savannah River and to aid fish migration, is a major component of the city’s role. American shad and shortnose sturgeon swim upriver each spring, but their path is blocked by the dam. Opening the locks allows them to continue upstream.

The project was built as an aid to commercial river traffic. Because that commerce no longer exists, the corps has placed the site on the back burner – and even proposed in 1999 that it be demolished.

Local governments mounted an effort to save the dam and its 13-mile pool of water tapped by industries and cities upstream.

In 2000, an agreement was reached to renovate the site and turn it over to local municipalities to maintain. Stakeholders included North Augus­ta, Aiken County and Augus­ta, which would contribute to maintenance.

However, Congress hasn’t come up with the estimated $22 million needed for the renovation, which was to include a fish passage device at New Savannah Bluff.

Last week, the corps’ Savannah District announced $94.3 million in projects it would fund with stimulus dollars – but New Savannah Bluff was absent.

Corps spokesman Billy Bird­well said the stimulus program was designed for projects that were ready to begin.

“At one time we could have said yes, but that’s been a while,” he said. “Things change over time. We can’t say we’re just going to start something we talked about a few years ago. We’d have to go back and look at it again to see what differences there might be.”

The corps still intends to renovate the site and repair the aging locks. Once that happens, the land and park nearby could be formally deeded to the city or the consortium of local governments.

The number of visitors at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam:

Fiscal Year 2005 374,892

Fiscal Year 2006 334,275

Fiscal Year 2007 242,582

Fiscal Year 2008 201,265

Source: Army Corps of Engineers


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