SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A day after an order was sent down to vacate, some campers at Observation Knob Park started the process of packing up.
Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable sent a letter informing campers they must leave by March 15 so that significant changes can be made to the park.
Donald Salyer and his wife traveled down from their home in Coeburn, Virginia to start loading up Thursday afternoon.
Salyer said it was an emotional time for him as he enjoyed camping and hanging out by the South Holston Lake with family.
“I hate it and we’re going to really miss it,” Salyer said. “It’s just tough to deal with.”
Venable said there are significant infrastructure needs that must be addressed, but doing so without the changes would be a burden on taxpayers.
“We have about a half million dollars of electrical and water work that needs to be done,” Venable said. “We’re probably about 30 years behind, and some of these larger campers require 40-50 amps. Some people are actually burning up some of the electrical hookups.”
The park sits on Tennessee Valley Authority property but is leased and operated by the county.
TVA inspectors will take a look at the property’s problems and came back with a full list of what needs to be improved.
Venable said the changes came after a discussion with park management. It was decided to change the revenue model to make the park profitable to pay for the infrastructure needs.
Rent will increase to $300 per month for seasonal campsites. Fees for daily campsites will increase as well.
The changes also include a reduction in the number of seasonal campsites from 178 to just 88.
Venable said TVA guidelines encourage a higher percentage of daily campsites over seasonal ones.
A lottery will be held to determine who gets one of the limited seasonal spots before the camp opens for the season in April.That paves the way for more campsites to accrue the daily fee, creating a more profitable margin for the county.
“We found that we only have to rent a daily site for eight days a month to exceed revenues we were previously getting,” Venable said.
But it comes at the cost of long-time campers like the Salyers, who have enjoyed the last five years at the lakefront campground.
With less than three weeks to get everything packed up and moved out, Donald Salyer has a lot of work to do.
“I’ve got to tie all my stuff down inside, take all the TVs out,” Salyer said. “Secure all our chairs and tables inside, and I have to hire somebody to come and pull my camper.”
Salyer said he was glad he never installed a deck adjoining his camper because those must now be torn down.
A former colleague of Venable’s who is also a camper at Observation Knob said the mayor is making an unfair decision. Mark Vance, a former Sullivan County commissioner, has spent many Summer days at Observation Knob over the last 15 years.
He said the changes are punishing campers who have done nothing wrong.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the people that have camped out here, that pay their rent, that put their own money into these campsites to make it their weekend place to camp and ask them to pick up and move,” Vance said.
Vance said the park has built up quite the community of campers over the years he’s been there, and that is now likely to change.
“They’re going from a hundred and some to 88 seasonal campers,” Vance said. “Not everyone’s coming back.”
He said he will enter the lottery as the park means too much to his family.
Salyers, however, has had enough.
“I’ll just find someplace else or get me a piece of land somewhere on the river,” Salyers said.
Venable said the county’s lease with TVA is up in 2024. He said TVA would like to continue their partnership, but he wants the park in good shape before then.