CAIRO — Local leaders and government officials met at the Grady County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon to discuss future economic development opportunities surrounding Tired Creek Lake.
County Administrator Buddy Johnson, who led the meeting, said the lake project is now at a point where something needs to happen to spur development in the area.
“I am not one to kick cans down the road,” Johnson said. “I don’t like it. I know there are times when I have to do that, but I don’t believe this is one of them anymore.”
The group was brought together by state Representative Darlene Taylor, who said she believes the lake is a great prospect for the county that will eventually impact the entire region.
Taylor said the meeting presented an opportunity for a think tank of local leaders to review the assets available with the project and brainstorm ideas.
“I felt like it was good to get everybody who can have something to contribute to it to the table so we can talk about how to best use our resources and come up with a plan,” Taylor told those in attendance. “It may not look like anything we come up with today, but the pieces can be put together.”
Stormy weather cancelled a planned group tour of the lake, but Johnson and lake consultant Will Butler used a map of the property to show off the 2,000-acre tract of land surrounding the water.
Flexibility in deciding how the lake can be used is one of the property’s strongest assets, Butler said, and county officials have a unique opportunity to decide what they’d like to do with it.
“There’s not another lake of this size where we control every linear foot of frontage,” Butler said, citing the results of a market study he conducted. “That’s huge because whether it’s a recreational use, residential use or whatever, knowing that you have some control over the entire frontage makes a big difference.”
Typically, Butler said lake projects either develop in a “hodgepodge” fashion with little regulation or as a single corporate product.
With more than one million people within 60 minutes driving distance of the lake, Butler said there are tons of opportunities at Tired Creek as long as there’s a unified vision.
“If this lake is just wide-open, anything goes, you’re going to lose some buyers,” he said.
Butler said local leaders eventually have to figure out what type of market they’d like to attract to the lake, whether it be kayakers, anglers, jet skiers or an older population more interested in a tranquil atmosphere.
One concept which recurred throughout the meeting was the idea of an RV park, which could be created quickly and cheaply and instantly provide a source of income.
Johnson said nearly every developer who has toured the lake has suggested the inclusion of an RV park.
“Those things are goldmines right now,” the county administrator said. “Everybody wants to go RV.”
An RV park can easily be moved to a different part of the lake if a developer becomes interested in the area where it’s located, and Butler said the people there will support local restaurants, show activity and provide energy.
Butler said that the lake is also well-suited for a restaurant and cabins or a small limited-service hotel, which can serve visitors from out of town as well as locals.
Seeing the lake develop will take time, Johnson warned, and the project may not reach its full potential for 50 years.
“We’re going to see a return and keep an increasing return each year,” Johnson clarified, “but for me the vision is 50 years. The vision is when you’re going to say ‘wow, that’s awesome.’”
Aside from what the lake can eventually be used for, the group also discussed the challenges that lay ahead for the project.
Legal troubles with neighboring Leon County, Florida are set to be a thing of the past with upcoming county commission votes on a memorandum of understanding, but Johnson said infrastructure presents a different hurdle that must be overcome in order for the lake to be ready for development.
At least one paved entrance that leads to a landing already exists, but access to a larger cleared section featuring a jetty is closed because only a single unsafe dirt road leads to the area, which Johnson said could be the site of future events such as concerts or fireworks displays.
Additionally, while the area underneath and surrounding the lake has already been plumbed, the nearest connection point to a source of water is approximately five miles away.
Estimated costs to link the systems together run between $3-6 million, and Johnson said one of the challenges the group faces is coming up with a solution for how to acquire that money.
Butler said there are several avenues that can be explored for coming up with that money, and part of the reason why the meeting was called was to see what ideas the group could come up with.
“We don’t know what all the tools are in your toolkit,” Butler said. “If you could think of some tools, we sure would like to borrow your wrench. If you’ve got a Phillips head that will help us, we’d sure like to borrow it.”
Among the visitors present at the meeting were representatives from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, the University of Georgia Archway Partnership and the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission.
Local representatives included members of the chamber of commerce, Joint Development Authority and Lake Authority as well as Cairo City Manager Chris Addleton, Whigham Mayor George Trulock and Grady County commissioners June Knight and Ray Prince.
Prince thanked the attendees for providing their input throughout the meeting.
“The more we can work together, the more we’re going to accomplish,” the commissioner said.
The meeting was closed to the public but open to the media, and part of Johnson’s stated rationale for doing so was to promote transparency while also dissuading “naysayers” in the community who he says want to see the project fail.
Among the initial pessimists was Johnson himself, who admitted he quickly became tired of hearing about lake and viewing maps of it when he first took over as county administrator.
“All I saw was a turkey foot that I hated,” Johnson said, referring to the lake’s distinctive shape. “A $30 million turkey foot.”
Once the county administrator saw the lake in person, his opinion quickly changed.
“I had no idea what an asset it is and how pretty it is,” he said. “I think that’s the attitude I want to get started on as a community.”