ERWIN — With Tuesday’s announcement that a portion of the area will become Tennessee’s newest state park, the gate blocking entrance to the Rocky Fork property will soon come down.
While officials agree this in itself is significant, they feel the recreational and economic opportunities provided by the state park designation may have a much greater impact on Unicoi County and the region as a whole.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said with the hunting and fishing opportunities offered at Rocky Fork, the area has been a “sportsman’s paradise” for a number of years, and the areas is home to unique plant and animal species, making it a prime area for observation and educational opportunities.
Lynch said these activities would continue with the state park designation, the designation would also open the area up for other recreational opportunities such as hiking, biking and camping. These opportunities would tie in with other recreational areas and opportunities offered in Unicoi County, including Rock Creek Park, the Erwin Linear Trail, the Pinnacle Fire Tower Trail, rafting and scenic lookouts. Lynch said the park will also be located within a mile of the Appalachian Trail, providing visitors with access to yet another recreational opportunity.
“When you take all the things that we’ve got already and put this in the picture, it really kind of gives us a better chance of bringing people in and keeping them in the county for two or three days because there is so much to do,” Lynch said.
The state park at Rocky Fork would also tie in with recreational opportunities offered in surrounding areas, Lynch said.
“The fact that it’s so close to Interstate 26 means not only is it going to help Unicoi and Unicoi County, but it’ll help Johnson City, Carter County and even up in Sullivan County because of the lakes,” Lynch said. “So you technically could have people coming in and spending a few nights out at the lake and coming into Rocky Fork, or vice versa.”
The park should also create a number of entrepreneurial opportunities in Unicoi County and economic benefits that will be realized throughout the region, Lynch said. Lynch said having the park nearby could lead stores, restaurants, cabins and lodges to locate in the Flag Pond area.
“One thing we want is we hope it will be sustainable tourism that doesn’t really mess up the quality of life,” Lynch said. “We don’t want anything to take away from our quality of life. There will be more people coming through the county, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to have putt-putt golf courses and slick tracks and race tracks. This will be more of an outdoor adventure. It’ll be different clientele than probably would go to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge. It would be different. This would be a totally outdoor experience.”
Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander were in Unicoi County Tuesday to announce that around 2,000 acres of the approximately 10,000-acre tract making up Rocky Fork will become the state’s 55th state park. The area of Rocky Fork designated for the park, currently owned by the Conservation Fund, will eventually be conveyed to the state. The portion of the property not designated for the park will remain under the ownership of the U.S. Forest Service.
Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Conservation, said a feasibility study was completed around two years ago to detail the amenities that could be put in place at the Rocky Fork State Park to attract visitors and engage the public in the park.
Hill said that base level amenities that will go into the park after it is conveyed to the state include a ranger station that will serve as a visitor’s center, picnic areas and picnic shelters, restrooms with running water, including a septic system, and approximately two dozen primitive campsites, along with an access road to provide visitors with access to these amenities. Hill said if these amenities are received well, more could be added after the park is opened.
Hill said the state will also work to extend water lines to the area, which in turn would provide potable water to those who may be without.
“You’ve got a tremendous opportunity because we’re coming in, and we’re not really changing the use, we’re just adding new things to the property for people to have the opportunity to go up there and fish and do a lot of the things they’ve probably been doing for years,” Hill said. “And they’ll be a little safer now because we’ll have rangers on the ground. We’ll have some nice amenities for the local community to enjoy as well as the tourists.”
Although the Conservation Fund is set to convey the property designated for the park to the state within the coming months, Hill said the state hopes to acquire the property “as soon as possible.” He also said the base level amenities will be included in his department’s budget request for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins in July. Preliminary work may include a civil engineering study to determine the placement of the access road and studies concerning the water line placement.
“This is not something we can accomplish in one year’s time,” Hill said. “This is going to take a while, take a couple of years, maybe more.”
The planned amenities for the park will be contained in only a few acres, Hill said, leaving the rest of the designated park area available for hiking, biking, fishing and hunting.
Like Lynch, Hill feels the state park and the enhanced infrastructure lend themselves to economic development opportunities. He said the park would serve as a focal point for local tourism, and it would receive the benefit of the state marketing the park.
Hill said the University of Tennessee conducted a study in 2008 that showed for every dollar invested in state parks, $17 is generated in direct impact and another $20 is generated in indirect impact. That study showed that Tennessee state parks have a total economic impact of more than $700 million annually.
“I think you’ve got a great opportunity there in Unicoi County to benefit your local economy from a tourism perspective,” Hill said.
Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp said the Chamber fully intends to promote and market the state park alongside the other recreational opportunities offered in the county, adding that the park will be one of the county’s “greatest assets.”
“I think Unicoi County is very well-known for outdoor recreation and much of our marketing efforts center around outdoor recreation, the rafting, the Appalachian Trail, hiking trails, the bicycle trails and the rest of the amenities this county has, and I think this will certainly complement those and add to the outdoor adventure and recreation that we already have,” Delp said.
Erwin Town Recorder Randy Trivette said the park’s impact will likely be seen throughout the Upper East Tennessee region, as daytime and long-term visitors to the area utilize local stores, hotels and service stations. He also feels the park would go well with other opportunities offered in Unicoi County.
“From the town of Erwin’s perspective, we’re very excited about the state park going in at Rocky Fork,” he said. “Our county’s got a lot of natural resources, and the more we can tap into those natural resources the better it is for our tourism development and growth in the community.”