WJHL.com - $1 million spent; No Elizabethton fish hatchery 4 years later

$1 million spent; No Elizabethton fish hatchery 4 years later

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ELIZABETHTON, TN (WJHL) -

At the end of the road in the Cherokee Industrial Park is a massive chain-link fence surrounding a grove of trees, thick with weeds and vines – but you'll also find a large sign painted brown with yellow letters making a bold promise: "Proposed site of the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery".

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency owns the 25 acres of land behind the fence, the land along the banks of Watauga River, and the land near a stretch of river that attracts trout fishermen from all around.

In 2009, TWRA purchased the land from the City of Elizabethton for $190,000. It seemed to be a smart move for the state agency in charge of maintaining the health of Tennessee's rivers and streams.

A new fish hatchery would provide a secure supply of trout for Northeast Tennessee waterways, popular among anglers, and important to Tennessee's outdoor tourism industry.

The next year, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to spend $800,000 to study and design the facility.

Plans were developed. Tests were conducted. Blueprints were drafted.

The next step was funding. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources agency couldn't come up with the $20 million, by current estimates, to build the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery. So, help would have to come through an appropriations bill passed by the Tennessee General Assembly - but that's where the project stalled.

"We're just waiting for funding," said State Representative Kent Williams in a recent interview with News Channel 11.

Carter County's representative in Nashville made it priority even before his rise from obscurity to the powerful position of Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Tennessee General Assembly.

"This fish hatchery would change the complexion of the city of Elizabethton forever," Williams said. "I think it would be one of the most major events to happen in Elizabethton."

Williams, an Elizabethton-native, made Tennessee history in 2009. He voted with every Democrat to make himself Speaker of the House. The Tennessee GOP Party responded by voting Williams out of the party. He's now listed as an Independent but refers to himself as a "Carter County Republican."

It's impossible to gauge what, if any, these events had on the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery Project. But right away, legislative support for the project was in short supply. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) labeled the fish hatchery project as "pork" and blocked funding as the recession deepened and extra spending was eliminated.

"It did start off as something that one legislator wanted," said State Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City). "Kent wanted this for his district. And it was seen as pork and entitlement and that sort of thing."

Now in 2013 after almost $1 million spent, the project has yet to be fully funded by the Tennessee General Assembly. Despite the fact the TWRA has made it clear the hatchery is needed.

The lack of support remains a mystery to the politician who has pitched the idea to fellow lawmakers and two Governors over the past four years.

"There's probably some politics involved," said Williams. "I would hope we wouldn't let politics have any part of this."

During a recent visit to Elizabethton to officially open a new museum at Sycamore Shoals State Park, News Channel 11 asked Governor Haslam about the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery. As Governor, Haslam has the power to submit a budget to lawmakers and prioritize funding for key State projects.

"Like a lot of other things, that comes up in the budget every year and kind of wrestles with priority with a lot of other things," Governor Haslam said.

News Channel 11: "Are you willing to examine making it a priority?"

Governor Haslam: "Like I said, we look at a whole lot of things. And we have to balance that against a lot of other things. What I can tell you is that again we'll take a look at it."

News Channel 11: "What do you say to those who wonder if this is not a victim of politics in Tennessee?"

Governor Haslam: "From our standpoint, it's not it's never been about that. We try to make the right decision for the State. I think that's what our track record has shown all across the state."

A decision on the project needs to be made soon. According to the purchase contract, the City of Elizabethton has the option to take back the 25 acres in the Cherokee Industrial Park if the TWRA doesn't move forward with the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery Plan by the fall of 2014.

If that happens, almost $1 million in taxpayer money will have been spent for nothing.

"I can't imagine how else we'd use the land," Williams said.

If there's cause for optimism in regards to the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery project, it can be found in the newest plan being developed by local economic development officials in concert with State lawmakers – the inclusion of the hatchery as the centerpiece of a larger riverfront development project. Williams and Crowe say they're working with Elizabethton, Carter County, and State economic development leaders to present a unified request for funding.

"This no longer is just on lawmaker's project," said Senator Crowe. "This has the potential to be something huge, something that could transform the economy in this part of the State."

Williams and Crowe say they'll meet with Tennessee economic development leaders and, as Williams has done several times before, include the Elizabethton Fish Hatchery funding request in next year's budget.

"I'm hopeful," Williams said. "I don't give up without a fight."

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