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Chambers County lake manager to resign

LaFAYETTE — Ted Craig, the manager of Chambers County Public Lake, may leave that position with two-and-a-half years left on his contract unless an agreement can be worked out to permit more camping at the lake.

“I regret to inform everyone who visits Chambers County Lake that my tenure as lake manager will end on August 30, 2020,” he posted this week on Facebook. “I have tried my best to serve this community and surrounding areas. However, I am unable to generate enough sales to cover the expenses of operating the lake. My last hope was to make additional revenues through an aggressive promotion of camping. To accomplish this, I need to add more campsites. The sites I have asked to develop require no investment (from the state) to develop. My requests have been denied. I’ll just say I am sorry and that I feel I have let you folks down. Thanks for each and all for allowing me the privilege for serving you the last three-and-a-half years.”

Craig told The Valley Times-News on Thursday that he’s having a hard time understanding why his request to increase the number of campsites has been turned down.

“It wouldn’t cost the state anything,” he said. “What I was asking for was of them (the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) to let me develop 12 new campsites near the lake and six more farther away. We already have four campsites near the water and three more on the back side. This would give us 18 more sites and would greatly improve our chances of breaking even. The land is cleared and ready to use.  Picnic tables and grills are already there. All we were asking for was their backing for us to do something that would draw more people to Chambers County Lake, and it wouldn’t cost them anything.”

Craig said that camping had been extremely popular during the worst days of COVID-19 back in the spring. It’s an outdoor activity with plenty of social distancing and people avoiding large crowds. In May, more than 300 people camped on the lake, Craig said. This compares to 12 in May 2019. There were 137 campers in June compared to another scant number in June 2019. The August numbers are continuing to follow the trend.

Craig attributes this to word getting out about Chambers County Lake being a nice place to go fishing, to enjoy the outdoors and to camp for the night.

“I’m just fed up with bureaucracy,” Craig said. “I waited three months for a response on this. They turned me down on July 28.”

Craig said that he has put his heart and soul into making Chambers County a popular destination for a growing number of people. He credits the Chambers County Commission and Sheriff Sid Lockhart on having backed him in building a children’s playground at the lake.

“It was funded by a grant,” he said. “(Former Extension Director) Ken McMillan got it for us, and the county followed through with it. Sheriff Lockhart helped by having inmates do the work.”

To appeal to different interests, Criag also developed an archery range and a paintball course on the lake property.

Craig wants to get across that he does not have a problem with county government or local people.

“The county has been fully behind me on what I have tried to do there,” he said. “Local people have been very supportive as well. I like to tell people that anyone who comes to Chambers County Lake falls in love with it and comes back for more visits. I know that at least half of the people who come here are from Lee County. Just this week alone, we have had people here from Troup, Harris and Coweta counties in Georgia and Douglasville, Georgia. We’ve had people from Barbour, Russell and Elmore counties in Alabama.”

At 185 acres in size, Chambers County Lake is the state’s second largest public lake. At 188 acres, Escambia County has the largest one. The lake is fed by two creeks, five branches and 21 natural springs. It has over 560 million gallons of water when full, which is most of the time.

A native of north Alabama, Craig said that he has absolutely loved being the lake manager and meeting the many people who come there.

“There must be 900 kids who call me grandpa,” he jokes.

This past May, the lake played host to a very successful kids’ fishing rodeo.

“We kept 37 families at least 10 feet apart,” Craig said. “We had a total of 178 children participating. It was the biggest fishing rodeo we’ve ever had. It was great.”

Some 900 pounds of catfish were brought in from Auburn University to the big event.

“I will never forget one family and how excited they were,” Craig said. “They had the time of their life catching 47 catfish.”

Collectively, the children caught a total of 444 catfish weighing more than 400 pounds.

“After the rodeo, we opened it up to the families, and everyone was catching the fish,” Craig said. “No doubt about it, it was the best event we’ve had in the three-and-a-half years I have been here.”

It’s not unusual for parents to drop off teenage sons at the lake, let them fish for several hours and then pick them up late in the afternoon.

Craig said the spring and fall seasons are the busiest times on the lake. His favorite time of year is the fall when the leaves change color.

“People have to see it to appreciate it,” he said. “We have a professional photographer from Auburn who comes here a lot, and he has taken some great photos. He was here not long ago taking photos of a comet.”

Kimberly Camp, who volunteers for the lake’s bait shop, has started an online petition supporting Craig and the job he has done at Chambers County Lake. It can be found at change.org under “ChambersCountyLake.” By Thursday afternoon, it had generated a total of 1,425 responses. A paper petition supporting Craig has more than 100 signatures.

“People everywhere, not just Chambers County, want him to stay on,” Camp said. “People are making so many wonderful comments like ‘our kids don’t want our grandpa to go,’ ‘what a nice guy Ted is,’ ‘what a great j0b he has done since being here’ and how clean the lake is.”

“I’m not asking anything from the state but back us on building more camp sites,” Craig said. “It won’t cost them anything. The picnic tables and grills are already there. If they can’t back me on this my job is done. It’s going to be tough for the next lake manager who comes in here. They need to let him do things that let him break even. If not, he will have to pay for things out of his own pocket or ask for donations.”

Craig said he has heard some disturbing talk that the state might drain the lake and re-fill it at a later date.

“They did that in Lee County, and it took them five years to do it,” Craig said. “Compared to the lake we have here, Lee County Lake is shallow. It has around 320 million galloons of water compared to 560 million for Chambers County Lake. They will never get it dry, and it will take much longer than five years to re-fill it. The question to ask here is why? I’m an Army veteran, and I know what bureaucracy is like. The expectations are always too high and the costs are always underestimated.”

“I love Chambers County,” Craig said. “The people are so good here. And I love this lake. I can remember telling (Commissioner) David Eastridge that this lake is a diamond in the rough. It just needs to be cut and polished.’”

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