ELIZABETHTON — Although Rep. Kent Williams has included an $11 million amendment in the state budget to fund a long-discussed fish hatchery on the Watauga River at the Cherokee Industrial Park, he does not believe it will be passed this year.
“We are still fighting for it,” Williams said Monday. “I don’t think it is going to come this year.”
Williams said if the Legislature were going to be in session longer, the amendment might have a chance this year, but he said the leadership is expediting the session and a vote on the budget is expected as early as next week.
With such a timeline, Williams is already looking at ways to get funding for the hatchery next year.
“I believe we can include it in a construction bond package,” Williams said. “I have great expectations for it.”
Williams believes the state-of-the-art fish hatchery will not only make the region more attractive for fly fishermen in search of trout, but it will also be a tourist attraction for families. There is only one hatchery like it in the United States, and the Erwin hatchery would not only raise rainbow trout, but endangered cold-water species. It is also expected to attract school groups and others interested in wildlife and ecology.
If the hatchery is not funded this year, it will just be one more year in what has been nearly a decade effort to build the hatchery.
While Williams has become the leading proponent for the hatchery at the state level, it was an idea that had been proposed before he was elected to the House, back in a better economic climate.
The idea came from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which approached city of Elizabethton officials in January 2004 with the proposal to purchase city-owned land in the industrial park. The Elizabethton City Council agreed to hold this last remaining parcel of land in the industrial park for TWRA in October 2004, but the deal did not move forward for several years.
Then-Mayor Sam LaPorte made a prospective statement at the time of the city’s commitment that “this is the first step of a journey of 1,000 miles. It has to work out in terms of funding for them and water quality.”
It was the City Council that brought the issue back to the front burner in 2009, when council members asked if TWRA had lost interest. With precious little acreage left in the city suitable for new industrial development, the council members were prepared to sell the land to other parties if TWRA was no longer going to build the hatchery.
That led to the TWRA purchasing a 19-acre undeveloped tract in the park at a cost of $198,000.