From Rome News-Tribune
LEESBURG, Ala. — The Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce is hoping for a huge infusion of cash this week as anglers from all over the Southeast converge on Weiss Lake.
Saturday will mark the first time the Alabama Bass Trail has brought a Bass Anglers Sportsman Society-sanctioned tournament to the lake.
Anglers compete as part of two-person teams. Kay Donaldson, Alabama Bass Trail director, said she expects more than 150 teams to participate in the event.
Thereasa Hulgan, the Chamber’s executive director, said many of the anglers have already been spending a lot of time, and money, scouting out Weiss on weekends.
“They’ve been coming for about four weeks off and on,” Hulgan said.
She anticipates the anglers could start to roll into the Centre area as early as Tuesday to begin looking for fishing hot spots, which vary with the weather.
The tournament will be headquartered at Leesburg Landing, which has already seen the parking lot expanded to handle the number of boat trailers and vehicles that will be coming. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is providing grant money to the city for a major overhaul of the landing.
“It’s part of a multi-year improvement project,” Hulgan said. “They’re really going to do it up right.”
Leesburg Mayor Brandy Pierce said the state has budgeted $1 million for the work at the landing, and the city is putting in $339,121.
Pierce said once the improvements are complete and more tournaments are added to the lake schedule, he thinks the community will be able to attract additional hotels and restaurants.
“In years to come, you’re going to see a lot of big fishing tournaments like you’ve never seen before come to Leesburg and Cherokee County,” Pierce said.
Terri Hyatt owns the Bay Springs Country Inn, a 21-room motel just a couple of miles from Leesburg Landing. She said she’s already seen improvements in her business since Leesburg started upgrading the landing.
“For convenience to the landing, we’re in an excellent area,” Hyatt said.
She’s already thinking about ways to extend their offerings, although it’s unlikely to be in the form of more rooms.
“I don’t have any additional area to expand here unless I add a second floor,” Hyatt said. “I wouldn’t rule that out, but the thing you have to be careful about is that you’ve got good lodging requirements year-round — because your bills continue all year long.”
Her son, Robert Hyatt, said the family may start doing guided tours to nearby places like Little River Canyon, between Centre and Fort Payne, or Noccalula Falls in Gadsden.
Donaldson said the economic impact of the Weiss Lake tournament could range from $300,000 to $350,000.
“That’s all driven by the number of people in hotels,” she noted. “And the rates there are a little bit lower than some of the areas we go to.”
That spells money for the community around the lake, and also for communities around Centre — including Gadsden, Fort Payne and even Rome.
Hulgan said there are fewer than 200 hotel rooms in Cherokee County, so some of the anglers in for the tournament will have to find accommodations farther afield.
“Some of them do bring their families, too,” Hulgan said.
Kerry Mann, the manager at Evans Store, 5680 Alabama Highway, said he generally does big business on the days of major fishing tournaments at Weiss. It’s the last store of any size for Georgia fishermen heading to the lake.
“We sell a lot more gas, bait and biscuits,” Mann said. “Drinks, tobacco, all of it.”
The Alabama Bass Trail requires a $5,000 bid fee for the right to host a tournament. Donaldson said that’s not bad for an event that can generate six times that amount of revenue, or more, in one weekend. And she’s betting there’s interest in Weiss Lake.
“I think it has the potential to be one of our heavier-weighted tournaments because I know the quality of the spotted bass there,” Donaldson said. “We expect a big crowd at Leesburg because it’s the first time we’ve been there.”
Hulgan said the Alabama Bass Trail event would be their largest tournament at Weiss Lake in many years.
“It is going to be filmed, and it will be on Fox Sports South in October,” she noted.
Casting a wide net
Donaldson said the Alabama Bass Trail has enjoyed success over the last several years because it uses a model that allows anglers to sign up for the whole series of tournaments with the same fishing partner, as opposed to drawing a different partner every other weekend.
“You sign up to fish with your buddy, the guy you trust with your locations,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hulgan is hoping that the exposure Weiss gets over the next of the next week provides impetus for growth in the hospitality industry around the lake.
She said the Town of Leesburg is working with officials at Jacksonville State University on a feasibility study.
They’ll examine the impact of the upcoming tournament and try to identify what hotels and restaurants should be added to the existing mix.
The Weiss Lake event is the final tournament for the northern division of the Alabama Bass Trail series.
Previous contests were held at Lewis Smith Lake, between Jasper and Cullman; Lake Guntersville, outside Guntersville; Pickwick Lake, west of Florence; and Neely Henry Lake, south of Gadsden. The southern division ended its five-season tournament June 4.
The 10 winning divisional teams, plus the top point-getters in each division and 25 student teams, will make up the 145 boats that will compete for the series championship on Lake Eufaula in October.
Tournament organizers have reminded anglers who plan to fish the backwaters of Weiss across the Georgia state line that they have to purchase a Georgia fishing license.
The work at Leesburg Landing will prohibit the Alabama Bass Trail from coming back to Weiss in 2017, but Donaldson said the Trail is looking forward to a return to Weiss in the future.
Pierce said the work at the landing is a six-year project that is being undertaken in three phases.
The parking lot project is phase one. Pierce said the replacement of the double ramp that currently offers access to the water will be replaced for a four-lane ramp.
The ramp project and the addition of a 300-foot floating pier will allow as many as 20 boats to pull alongside and off-load at the same time at Leesburg Landing.