Columbia County's million-dollar investment in enhanced boat ramps at Wildwood Park could pay dividends with a state fishing and tourism initiative, county officials say.
Beda Johnson, the executive director of the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the county is scheduled to be included with at least 14 other communities in the planned Georgia Bass Trail. The trail is part of the state's Go Fish Georgia Initiative, which serves to promote fishing, tourism, economic development and conservation.
The trail also serves to promote and expand boat ramp access on major water bodies, with the goal of luring more major fishing tournaments to Georgia. Johnson said the county has found success through expanding its ramps at Wildwood Park, most notably with several professional bass tournaments staged each year.
"We are way ahead of the game," Johnson said. "Everybody is trying to become us because they see how wonderful this piece of business is for us."
Inclusion in the trail not only brings greater marketing power, but also greater in-state competition, she said.
"It's going to make the competition a little stronger, but as long as those tournaments still come to some place in Georgia, it's going to be good for us," she said. "It's going to have our name and the power of the state behind us promoting us, as well as ... the other locations in the Go Fish program."
As part of Go Fish, Columbia County could be in line for matching grants for marketing efforts or ramp improvements.
State and county officials say the county also is on a list of about a dozen communities in the running for a $23 million state fish hatchery and educational center under the initiative.
John Biagi, the assistant chief of fisheries for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said a consulting firm is examining potential sites with the goal of selecting one by the end of the year.
The visitors center and hatchery would serve as an educational resource to school children and a draw for tourists. The hatchery would also help the state restock its fresh waterways with trophy fish, grow rarer fish to return to their native parts of the state and raise smaller fish for the trophy fish to eat.
"The hatchery will give us an opportunity to focus on three areas our current (hatchery) facilities don't have capacity for," he said.
Biagi said the state is looking for a site with interstate access that also has 60,000 elementary and middle school-aged children within a 50 mile radius.
Johnson said she would like to see the visitors center and hatchery developed near the Lewiston Road exit, possibly on the site of the former Baker Place Road Landfill, if it is environmentally feasible.
Development Authority of Columbia County Executive Director Zack Daffin hailed it for its potential positive economic effect.
"It's one of those non-traditional economic development projects that has potential for positive impact for the region and the state," he said.
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