CORNELIUS – The prospect of a lakefront beach at Ramsey Creek by 2016 has prompted officials to envision mid-rise hotels, additional restaurants and other facilities with water access to make Lake Norman even more of a destination.
During a June 20 Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce discussion, Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis said Mecklenburg County and area towns have been working to “correct the mistakes of the past,” including the ban on swimming at waterfront parks enacted in the 1970s in response to drownings (removed in 2009), and also making waves to heighten the economic impact of the lake.
Cornelius touts 75 miles of shoreline, 1,400 lakefront lots and two restaurants on the water, yet the only public lake access is the sailing center. With no designated swimming locations, waders commonly seen at Jetton Park and elsewhere are breaking county rules. Currently, residents and visitors have to drive to the Lake Norman State Park in Troutman for lake access.
“You can look at the water, you just can’t use the water,” Travis said. “Quality of life is impacted because unless you own a boat, have a friend with a boat or know someone who lives on the lake, access to the lake is minimized. We have little opportunity for a lake town to actually use our greatest resource.”
Wading through regulations
Ramsey Creek has been earmarked as a beach site and the project is fully funded, with hopes it would be open by now.
Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Director Jim Garges said people will have “feet wet and butts wet” with a sandy beach, buoyed swimming area and lifeguards on duty by 2016, if not sooner.
The one-an-a-half acre property off Nantz Road won’t be the full answer to the problems, but the start of the solution.
“This is not Wilmington beach and we are not going to be Hilton Head,” he said. “You cannot have thousands of people out there at one time.”
Once construction starts, Garges said, it shouldn’t be a difficult project. Of the many sites they’ve looked at, Ramsey Creek has its advantages – most of the needed infrastructure is already there, and they won’t be adding more.
The 117 spaces in the parking lot are all that will be there for the beach with an estimated 200-family capacity. They’ll be competing for parking spots against those coming to launch at the boat ramp, use the dog park, picnic or go to the park and playground area.
“What we’ll have to do once the beach operation opens is we’ll have to man the gate,” Garges said. “They’ll be opportunities for next one out, next one in. … That’s common.”
He anticipates that mostly being an issue on weekends and not during the week or evenings.
The 2016 timeframe accounts for the county getting the proper permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, though Garges doesn’t anticipate an issue. Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation is also working to analyze traffic on the already congested Nantz Road so lines don't go on the main road. A public hearing for the project is slated for September.
Garges anticipates construction to start at the end of the year. It entails deciding how far out to put the buoys so it’s deep enough for enjoyment, but not too far off the shoreline, completing a lake bottom scan and removal of potential hazards.
They will also bring in sand, insert rock structures and complete turf renovation. Even with the bathhouses there, they have to check the 30-year-old septic system and add a water line from the main road. The lifeguards will take over the space where the Charlotte Mecklenburg police have an office, moving them to the Ramsey Creek caretakers’ house. Other amenities considered are more swinging benches and picnic grills.
“I think it’s going to be a beautiful area,” Garges said, adding public use won’t be limited to the usual Memorial to Labor Day season. “Ramsey is great just like it is. With the beach operation and small improvements, I think people will really be excited.”
Travis sees lake access as an advantage for the town and region, noting companies like MSC relocated because of the lake’s proximity and that visitors travel from south Charlotte, Winston-Salem and north of Statesville.
“Folks are coming to our town, spending money, dining, using our retail, maybe staying in hotels. The lake helps get us tournament play,” Travis said, adding it's a draw for people. “It’s critical to continue down this road. Swimming is sort of the first part. Swimming will be the catalyst for lots of great things to occur.”
With limited vacant land, Travis said redevelopment is the only option.
“We can encourage it by giving density bonuses, giving favorable zoning, and we can also do expedited review processes,” Travis said, saying towns should partner with developers and offer tax breaks or help with improvements.
Visit Lake Norman Executive Director Sally Ashworth said people ask every day about lakefront amenities. Ideally, she’d like to see a facility with a golf course, beach club, full service hotel and conference center.
After the meeting, Travis said he envisions mid-rise hotels and two- or three-story office buildings. He said activity is already happening thanks to a town land-use plan adopted in January allowing waterfront mixed-use development.
More to come
Garges isn’t limiting options to Ramsey Creek.
Mecklenburg County is also working with Duke Energy to identify ideal public access locations along the Catawba River system. The county has bought additional properties and scoped out other areas.
Among those considered were Latta Plantation, a smaller former beach area that has a lot more surrounding activity; Jetton Park, which is lacking infrastructure; and Blythe Landing, with limitations because of the boat launches.
The county has purchased part of the Rozzells Ferry area off N.C. 16 for canoe and kayak launches, though Garges isn’t sure swimming would be feasible because of the limited parking.
Duke Energy has also told Garges it has four potential swimming sites in mind, none of which are in Mecklenburg County.