EXCLUSIVE: Richland County plans new public recreation site on Lake Murray

Aerial view of proposed site for new Lake Murray recreation area.
Aerial view of proposed site for new Lake Murray recreation area. Google Maps

A public recreation site is planned for the Richland County side of Lake Murray after the county’s recent purchase of 4.2 acres in the Ballentine area.

The $2 million purchase was finalized June 30, according to county administrator Tony McDonald. More than a year was spent in closed-door talks and contract negotiations, with council members and county staff referring publicly to the project only by the code name “Project LM” even after council held a shell of a public hearing and approved setting aside money for the land purchase.

County leaders disclosed the purchase and the general idea for the land’s development only after The State newspaper pressed for details. Residents and lake-user groups have yet to weigh in.

It’s too early to say how the property, on Bonuck Road off Salem Church Road, could be developed, McDonald said, whether for beach, marina or other uses. Those plans have not been made and would have to be approved by council in the future, as would funding for development, McDonald said.

Boaters and sports groups long have pressed for more public recreation sites on the 650-mile shoreline. Shoreline neighborhood groups have thought that was a good idea but are particular about what would come to their neighborhoods.

“There’s definitely a need for more public access,” said Miriam Atria, CEO of Capital City Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board. “That’s a point we’ve made to everyone.”

Some fishing groups have been pushing for a new marina designed to attract more tournaments.

Additional marinas require approval from officials at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency that oversees recreation on lakes originally built for hydropower as Lake Murray was. And that would only be possible if South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which manages the lake, recommends the project.

There are no public recreation sites along the 38 miles of shoreline in Richland County in the northeast corner of the 47,500-acre lake, which is in Councilman Bill Malinowski’s district.

The nearest public access points are short drives to a boat ramp and beach at the dam, both in Lexington County, which is home to the largest portion of the lake’s shoreline.

The area surrounding the county’s purchase is one of the most heavily developed parts of the shoreline, mostly residential. But the peninsula where the county’s new property sits is more sparsely developed.

Developer Stewart Mungo described the area adjoining the site is “definitely a Who’s Who living there. They would want to see (a new recreation facility) done well.”

Atria and other community leaders say they weren’t consulted about the choice that Richland County leaders made. This area was not among the sites that lakefront groups recommended to federal officials for new public facilities five years ago.

The Bonuck Road site’s assessed value is $2.3 million. The county made the buy for $2,025,000.

The money for the land purchase came from the county’s hospitality tax fund. The 2 percent tax on prepared meals, dedicated to supporting tourism projects in the county, is expected to bring in about $6.4 million in the next year.

Multiple council members declined to comment on details of Project LM this week, saying they understood the contract was still under negotiation. The state’s Freedom of Information Act allows public bodies not to disclose information related to a property sale being negotiated until after the deal is done.

The purchase, however, was finalized two weeks ago.

“I do not have a reason for why we have not released that (information) to the public yet,” councilman Greg Pearce said when asked about the project Wednesday.

Efforts Wednesday afternoon to reach Malinowski, who pushed for the project, were unsuccessful.

“I don’t think we’re hiding anything,” council chairman Torrey Rush said of the delay in disclosing details. “We want to make sure we’re getting the best opportunity for the county, and sometimes if that information is out there, that can take things in another direction.”

No details about Project LM had been revealed in time for the June 2 public hearing, at which no one spoke, or for the final council vote on the land purchase spending, including the nature of the project or its location.

“I can’t imagine they went out and bought land without letting the public know,” Ballentine resident Earl Long said. “They should have been more up front, and we should have had more input.”

Councilman Seth Rose, who had joined the rest of council in giving unanimous consent to the first and second readings of the ordinance approving the spending, was the sole dissenter on last month’s third and final vote. “Before you spend seven figures on a property, you should have a plan on how the property will be used and get input first from the community that will be impacted,” Rose said.

Project LM is one of four hospitality tax-funded destination tourism projects council is currently pursuing, including Caughman Pond park off Garners Ferry Road, a planned $20 million water park in the northeast and a possible sports complex off Bluff Road. Project LM is the only one, though, whose purpose had not been previously revealed.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307. Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

Raising concerns

The site is near “a Who’s Who living there. They would want to see (a new recreation facility) done well.” – developer Stewart Mungo

“Before you spend seven figures on a property, you should have a plan on how the property will be used and get input first ...” – Councilman Seth Rose

“They should have been more up front, and we should have had more input.” – Ballentine resident Earl Long

Richland County hospitality tax projects

The county’s hospitality tax is a 2 percent tax on prepared meals dedicated to funding tourism projects. In addition to Project LM, County Council has three other “destination” tourism projects in the pipeline, with work either under way or the projects still in the contract or exploration phase.

Caughman Pond park

Three years ago, council purchased 44 acres along Garners Ferry Road in Councilman Norman Jackson’s district for a park featuring pond fishing and trails for walking. The park recently opened to the public, and council recently approved funding to put in bathrooms at the site.

Northeast water park

A $20 million park is planned at Hard Scrabble and Farrow roads, near I-77, in Councilman Torrey Rush’s district. Plans stalled briefly a few months ago when contract negotiations fell through, but the project has been readvertised to bidders. A contract to design, build and manage the park could come before council in the next month or so, Rush said. He has said he hopes to see the park open within the next year.

Bluff Road sports complex

Council is exploring financing models for a proposed $16 million to $20 million destination sports complex planned for Bluff Road in Councilman Kelvin Washington’s district.

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