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Mecklenburg swimming beach delayed until 2016

CORNELIUS The head of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce said he’s miffed after learning that Mecklenburg County’s first public swimming beach since the late 1970s might not open until 2016.

“Three steps forward ... one step back for public swimming at Lake Norman,” Chamber president and CEO Bill Russell posted on the chamber’s website this week. “I know nothing worth having comes quickly, but come on Meck County, raise the anchor and let’s put it in the wind!!!”

Mecklenburg County commissioner Karen Bentley told Lake Norman business leaders at a recent chamber meeting that a swimming beach would open in 2014 on the lake at Mecklenburg County-run Ramsey Creek Park, off Nantz Road in Cornelius. The Observer and other media outlets subsequently reported the 2014 date.

Bentley said Wednesday that Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation staff told her of the summer 2014 opening date before she addressed the chamber gathering. After news media reported the date, Bentley said, Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges told her 2016 was a more likely scenario.

“ ‘Build-out (of the beach) is a piece of cake,’ ’’ Bentley said Garges told her.

Bentley said Garges told her the delay is in the required permitting by Duke Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Efforts by the Observer to reach Garges by phone and email were unsuccessful Wednesday.

As part of the $1.7 billion budget Mecklenburg commissioners approved by a 5-4 vote last month, Ramsey Creek Park received $430,000 for the swimming area. The money will pay to plan and design the beach, apply for permits and build it.

In September 2009, commissioners voted 7-0 to reverse the longtime public beach swimming ban. The ban followed several drownings at county-run parks.

But plans were curtailed by severe budget cuts to the Park and Recreation Department because of poor economic times.

Commissioners agreed to lift the ban after a county study showed where swimming areas could be opened and where they shouldn’t.

Ramsey Creek Park proved best, in part because it has enough parking and its restrooms are near the proposed swimming area, officials said. How big the beach will be is still to be determined.

Beachgoers at Ramsey Creek Park will swim at their own risk. No money is included for lifeguards, Bentley has said. No other county-run park is being considered for a beach right now, she said.

Russell told the Observer this week that had the private sector handled the job, the beach would have been opened in a few months.

But Bentley said that since the lake is public and managed by Duke Energy under federal license, opening the beach also needs permitting from Duke and the federal government.

Bentley has pushed for a swimming beach since she was first elected in 2006. Cornelius and Huntersville are part of her district.

Russell, who also has pushed for years for public swimming’s return, has said he’s long considered the lack of public access at North Carolina’s largest manmade lake “pure economic discrimination.”

Marusak: 704-987-3670; on Twitter @ jmarusak.
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