Columbia County will receive up to $400,000 in state tourism money to re-engineer and repair the six-lane "mega-ramp" that has lured many important fishing tournaments to Wildwood Park.
During a news conference last week in Perry, Ga. grants were announced for 10 sites -- including Wildwood and a site on the Savannah River south of Augusta -- that will become part of the General Assembly's $19 million "Go Fish Georgia" initiative designed to boost tourism and economic development through increased fishing opportunities.
Wildwood Park is home to a $1.1 million bass fishing site financed by local option sales tax money. Its ramps were closed last summer when low water levels rendered them unusable, and the county had planned to finance the repairs and extensions with local dollars.
John Biagi, the chief of fisheries for Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division, said, however, that the local money already spent by Columbia County fulfilled the local matching commitment requirement for the state grant, meaning the state's money can be used to repair the ramps without additional county expense.
"It seemed like a good fit," Biagi said, noting that Wildwood already holds several major national fishing tournaments, including the Citgo Bassmaster Elite Series, which will return to Thurmond Lake next May for the fourth consecutive year.
Beda Johnson, the director of the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the grant is wonderful news -- and will ensure that the ramps can be extended and repaired properly so they will be dependable in the future, even when water levels fall.
"The county was going to have to pay for the extensions, but now we have the state money to get it done," Johnson said.
Having the ramps operational -- even at low water levels -- is critical in luring major events to the area. "It's incredibly important," she said. "Every tournament we have signed up for next year needs at least that many ramps."
The repairs, she said, should be completed in time for the Top Six Championship, which will bring 250 boats and more than 500 anglers to Wildwood in early March.
Augusta's grant will finance the expansion of the Bob Baurle ramp on the river below New Savannah Bluff and possibly enable striped bass tournaments in the river.
Friday's announcement, in Perry also included news of the Go Fish Georgia program's primary project: a state fishing tourism center and fish hatchery.
The Go Fish Georgia Center will be built on 120 acres near the National Fairgrounds and Agricenter and will include a visitor's center to promote fishing opportunities, an on-site public fishing lake and a fully functioning warm water hatchery.
The 10 mega-ramp sites announced Friday are part of a 15-site bass fishing trail that will include large ramps capable of accommodating large fishing tournaments.
Eight of the sites -- including those in Augusta and Columbia County -- will receive Go Fish Georgia funds. The other six sites are Laurel Park on Kale Lanier in Hall County; Richard B. Russell State Park in Lake Russell in Elbert County; West Point Lake in Troupe County; Lake Blackshear near Cordele; Lake Seminole near Blackshear; and the Altamaha River near Jesup.
The other two sites will be built on Lake Hartwell using funds from the PCB contamination settlement stemming from chemical releases upstream by a South Carolina plant that eventually flowed down into the lake.
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