A plan for a state fish hatchery in Elizabethton has been a political football bouncing around for several years, but Rep. John Holsclaw said Friday the approval is on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk, awaiting his action.
Holsclaw was speaking at the Carter County Legislative Breakfast.
The lawmaker said the time to act on getting fish hatchery approved was now, pointing to a state budget surplus he said could be used on several projects.
He said one of the difficulties in getting legislative support for the hatchery has been its price tag. The cost of the state-of-the art facility has risen from $18 million to $24 million, thanks to inflation.
Holsclaw said that price tag has put a few legislators off, but noted the facility was originally proposed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to be more than a means of keeping some of the most popular streams in the state stocked. It was also intended to be a state-of-the-art facility that would also be a tourist attraction and an education center for students.
The hatchery was first proposed by the TWRA at a meeting of the Elizabethton City Council in January 2004.
The wildlife agency had searched across the state to find a suitable place for it, and officials thought they had found their answer with a large spring flowing into the trophy trout stream section of Watauga. It was a site that had attracted Bemberg from Germany to Elizabethton nearly a century ago.
Although the area was the last undeveloped parcel in the city’s Cherokee Industrial Park, Elizabethton City Council agreed to reserve the land for the TWRA.
That’s when the project first stalled.
The TWRA searched for funding for the project for the next five years, and Council members questioned whether the TWRA was ever going to move forward on what was one of the few remaining industrial sites in the city.
The Council was prepared to sell the land to other interested parties, and that spurred the TWRA to buy the 19-acre tract from the city in 2009. The price was $198,000.
But the timing was terrible.
The state representative for the district, Kent Williams, had just incurred the wrath of Republicans who had been planning to take over the speakership of the House of the Representatives for the first time since the 1970s. They counted 50 votes to 49 for the Democrats, giving them the majority.
Those plans were dashed when Williams joined with Democrats to elect himself speaker.
In the aftermath, the Republican leadership was not eager to approve a fish hatchery in Williams’ district that would cost as much as $18 million.
Political pundits in Nashville wrote that “fish was the new pork.”
It was a difficult outcome for the city of Elizabethton, which developed a plan to convert the old industrial land into an attractive riverfront along the Watauga, with upscale shops, restaurants, and residences anchored by the hatchery.
As bad as the timing was in 2009, Holsclaw says the timing was probably the best it could ever be this year. He said there is a budget surplus — and a governor who has expressed support for the project.
“I have been working hard on this,” Holsclaw said.