ELIZABETHTON — Officials at Elizabethton City Hall expressed disappointment that the proposed fish hatchery for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency on the Watauga River was once again not included in Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget for next year.
City Manager Jerome Kitchens said he has not given up on eventually getting funding for the fish hatchery in the next few years, “but given the time frame, we have looked at alternatives” for developing the valuable riverfront property.
The city’s main interest in seeing the fish hatchery built is to make it a centerpiece of the West End Redevelopment plan. That plan includes the commercial and residential development of the south bank of the Watauga River.
The fish hatchery has been on the TWRA’s wish list for more than a decade and the agency has planned to make it not only a state-of-the-art cold water hatchery for trout, but also for stocking endangered cold water species. The plans call for it to also be a tourist attraction with a park-like setting along the river. It was designed to be similar to a Texas hatchery that draws thousands of tourists a year.
Kitchens does not think the hatchery would be a major attraction like the Chattanooga aquarium, but he does think it will draw people to watch the fish and to the attractive parks on the grounds. He said that would encourage nearby commercial development along the riverfront and help to get the city’s redevelopment plans going.
“The fish hatchery will definitely complement what we are trying to do on the riverfront and make it more attractive to commercial development,” Elizabethton Planning Director Jon Hartman said.
“Not having the fish hatchery in the governor’s budget is disappointing, but we have to move forward,” Hartman said.
While Elizabethton has made the hatchery a centerpiece of its redevelopment plans, it was not a project that had initially been proposed by the city to the state.
At its beginning a decade ago, the TWRA had planned to build the hatchery in Elizabethton because of the cold spring that flows into the river at the foot of the Cherokee Industrial Park.
In January 2004, TWRA officials attended a meeting of the Elizabethton City Council and proposed to purchase the city-owned land for the proposed hatchery. It was not an easy sell because it was the only parcel of land left in the city’s industrial park.
The City Council agreed to hold the land for the TWRA, but five years later, the council began to ask questions about whether the TWRA was ever going to move forward on developing the property. With precious little industrial land left in Elizabethton, the council was prepared to sell the land to other interests who were ready to develop it.
Sensing the pressure, TWRA purchased the 19-acre tract from the city in 2009 at a cost of $198,000.
The timing was bad for the TWRA because the proposed fish hatchery became a political football in the controversy over Elizabethton’s state representative, Kent Williams, becoming speaker of the House over the objections of the Republican members who were prepared to take over the speakership for the first time since the 1970s. Williams’ alliance with Democrats thwarted the GOP plan.
In the aftermath, plans for the fish hatchery were criticized and pundits started using the phrase “fish, the new pork.”