The Mother’s Day storms of 2008 brought heavy destruction to Lake Tobesofkee’s parks. But the storms also allowed for the parks’ rebirth.
Lake Tobesofkee wrapped up its best fiscal year ever this summer, as surging use from swimmers, picnickers, campers and boaters brought in more money than ever.
But despite the apparent success, the lake’s parks are still struggling to break even, and county officials are torn on how to continue improvements at the park.
Lake Tobesofkee Recreation Area Director Doug Furney said insurance money from storm damage helped with repairs and improvements that the parks couldn’t have afforded otherwise. It also gave Lake Tobesofkee a chance to catch up with the trends. When the parks were built about 40 years ago, “camping” meant pop-up trailers and tents. Arrowhead Park, in particular, couldn’t accommodate the giant recreational vehicles that owners don’t like to back up. Arrowhead Park’s camping area was largely wiped out.
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The storms “also made us aware of what we should have been doing for years. It made us aware of things that we should not have neglected,” Furney said.
“That gave us the ability to completely redo that park, and it’s now as good as any park in Georgia, I think,” Furney said.
Claystone Park’s camping areas were getting upgrades before the storm, which destroyed structures and countless trees there. The loss of trees in some areas was beneficial, because some of the water views were blocked, officials said.
Good weather in the fiscal year that ended in June also helped the bottom line. Furney said the county’s parks had about 93,000 paid admissions, compared with a typical 70,000 to 75,000 admissions before the storms hit.
And demand is high.
Every camping site for the Labor Day weekend has been booked well in advance. Pull-through camper and waterfront camp sites “have been booked every weekend since this summer,” Furney said. Claystone Park’s enclosed pavilion, host to family reunions, birthday parties and corporate outings, is already booked for next May, June, July and August.
But in their budget meetings a few months ago, county commissioners struggled -- and failed -- to find money to build more pavilions to meet demand and bring in more cash. They’re even less likely to find their own money to complete the Lake Tobesofkee master plan, which called for $38.7 million to $51.4 million in improvements, including a water park and conference center. Commissioners often have compared the proposals with Lake Blackshear near Cordele.
And in the current fiscal year that began in July, the lake’s budget calls for a county subsidy of $220,500, plus about 355,721 in tourism-boosting money from the hotel-motel tax. The lake wrapped up the last fiscal year with an additional $73,000 in revenue but would need to grow that for years, in good weather and bad, to break even.
Commissioner Joe Allen, who lives near the lake and is chairman of the commission’s Lake Tobesofkee Committee, said public-private partnerships probably would be the only way to get the big amenities built. Other improvements could take years.
“It’s going to take a long time to do what we need to do without going into a great amount of debt,” he said.
Allen credits Furney and other county workers with revitalizing the park after the storms, but he notes that insurance money helped.
“We took a lemon and made lemonade,” Allen said. “We lost a lot of trees, we lost a lot of shelters, but we did have insurance.”
And other improvements continue with plenty of volunteer labor, from a butterfly garden in Claystone Park to an under-construction series of bike trails at Arrowhead Park.
Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said the lake’s park system still has a way to go, and the government perhaps shouldn’t be leading the efforts.
“The tornado certainly gave the resources to make improvements, and with all the improvements we’re still not where we need to be,” he said. “One of my concerns has been the marketing of the facility, and we don’t have all the amenities we maybe ought to have there.”
Edwards said the county can’t continue to run the park at a deficit, and he has fought other commissioners who sought to let non-profit organizations rent park facilities for free; most have been charged regular admission prices. Edwards said a company wouldn’t put up with continued losses.
“I would be open to look at a total privatization of the whole thing,” he said.
Furney said some of the problems at the park have been because of years of neglect and storm damage. He’s now starting to advertise the park more in trade magazines.
“We didn’t want to advertise a lot when we didn’t have anything to offer,” Furney said.
And smaller improvements, such as new picnic tables near Claystone’s beach, and an upgraded water system for Claystone’s camping area, are being planned. A new reservation system has made park camping more inviting. A long-neglected pavilion at Arrowhead Park has been redone, with much of the work handled by county employees.
As work continues at the parks, the money remaining from insurance settlements has dwindled. But that insurance money rebuilt Arrowhead Park, revamped much of Claystone Park and brought other improvements to Sandy Beach Park.
“The storm came along and really helped us out,” Furney said. “We had major, major damage in all three of our main parks, but nobody was injured, and it did allow us to make a lot of improvements that we otherwise wouldn’t have made. At the time we didn’t realize it. But looking back, it was the best thing to happen to us.”
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.