Corps of Engineers seeks to develop Nashville lake recreation area

By: - February 14, 2022 11:05 am
Cook Recreation Area at J. Percy Priest Lake. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Cook Recreation Area at J. Percy Priest Lake. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On a sunny winter day —  light glinting off the water, an optimistic angler casting off a wooden fishing pier, a couple sitting shoulder to shoulder on the shoreline — Frances Clark headed through the wilderness area at Cook Recreational Area on a path she has hiked for nearly 27 years and pointed to all she fears could be lost.

Nearly 300 acres of public lands and waterways along the east bank of J. Percy Priest Lake in the Hermitage neighborhood are poised to be leased out to a commercial vendor under a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is seeking proposals for the “development and operation of a major commercial concession” to provide snack bars, cafes and eateries, boat ramps, kayak and canoe rentals, classroom facilities, a camp store, pool, and improved hiking and fishing areas.

The plan seeks vendors to “provide quality facilities and services for recreation, at reasonable prices to meet public demand, and at the same time allowing entrepreneurs to make a fair profit.”

About a 20 minutes drive from downtown Nashville, the recreation areas remains one of the largest, accessible and undeveloped areas on the shores of a lake that has already seen large-scale public-private partnerships transform the landscape and block easy access to the water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking proposals to develop a “major commercial concession” to include cafes, boat ramps, kayak and canoe rentals and a camp store. Opponents say the plan cuts into dwindling green space in the growing Nashville area.

Among them: the Nashville Shores, a 385 acre parcel leased to amusement park investors in the 1980’s, open to the public for the price of a $40 admissions ticket, and Sun Life Marina (formerly Elm Hill Marina), with a private boating club, restaurant and recreation area.

“Nashville has had so much development and we see this as a bulls eye on where they want to send all these people,” Clark said, walking through the woods while pointing out a centuries-old stone wall that once marked farmland property lines, a towering tree where she had finally captured a picture of an elusive fuzzy-brown owl, the sandy beach area where her children and grandchildren have played.

The plans are opposed by local residents like Clark and her family, who are spearheading an effort to create public awareness, and opposition through a newly created Friends of Cook Recreation Area.

A petition opposing the plans was presented to the Corps last week, signed by more than 1,000 last week. Nearly every home in the neighborhoods lining the road to the recreation area have lawn signs opposing the plan. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency weighed in, urging the Corps to forgo the plan, in part because visitors would instead be forced to head to Seven Points or Vivrett Creek, access points along the lake that already have parking and overcrowding issues, a letter from the agency said.

The Metro City Council has also weighed in, passing a resolution requesting the Corps keep the recreation area public. And Mayor John Cooper has added his voice, too, encouraging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “pursue solutions that minimize environmental impacts, preserve natural resources, provide no-cost access to the public, and align with the community’s interests and desired uses of the space.”

“We need more green spaces that can be used for activities like hiking, walking, jogging, boating, swimming and birding,” a statement from Cooper’s office said.

But the ultimate authority for the use of the land remains with the Corps, which was authorized by Congress to manage the lake, a reservoir creating from damming the Stones River in the 1960s.

The Metro Council, mayor and local resident have “no authority to thwart a federal agency,” Cooper said.

Corps officials say one primary goal is for private investment to restore a now-defunct campground that it does not have the funding to maintain. After public pushback, the Corps noted publicly that the “initiative does not open the door to an additional marina or water park.”

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District will determine if there is a candidate that demonstrates the ability to meet the recreational need while safeguarding the environment,” Freddie Bell, a Nashville operations manager for the Corps said in an email last week.

The Corps is reviewing applications from vendors willing to pay roughly $10,000-$13,000 per month to gain oversight of the area and invest in amenities. Bidders have not been made public. The Corps is expected to complete its evaluation of the bids by Feb. 28, Bell said.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.