Recent changes to policies and services at Cullman County Parks have meant a big boost in camping activity at Smith Lake Park — but have brought completely to an end all public camping at Sportsman Lake Park.
The Cullman County Commission and the parks department recently shut down service at all nine camping sites at Sportsman Lake, citing outdated electrical service hookups that were becoming too costly to repair in return for the revenue the sites generate.
“The reason we’re discontinuing it is that there aren’t enough amperes for some of the campsites, which has created some electrical hazards and potential safety issues — for both the campers and for us,” said county parks director Doug Davenport.
“Sportsman Lake is really more of a day use park and not a full-service campground. Campers and RVs have gotten larger over the years and they pull a lot of draw. Some of them run two or three air conditioning units. That was burning up a lot of the breakers. The electrical lines there are not heavy enough to carry that load, and with only nine campsites, spending money to replace it all is not feasible.”
Davenport said the park will convert the campsites into rental pavilions, a measure he said should help recoup any lost revenue the former campsites had generated. “The way that area is configured, with walkers and pedestrians moving through the area, that’s really a better fit,” he said.
“The sites are kind of situated in the flow of pedestrian traffic for people using the park and walking, and moving through that area almost feels like you’re walking through someone’s campsite. Hopefully this will help things flow better for everyone who uses the park.”
At Smith Lake Park, meanwhile, camping isn’t just allowed; it’s a big piece of the park’s revenue-generating activity. Since Jan. 1, a new park policy has been in effect that prevents extended camping stays in excess of 28 days, requiring at least a 7-day departure and site relocation in order for stays that would otherwise exceed the limit.
“Some people were almost homesteading it, and addressing that has opened up some new opportunities for more people to come in and camp,” said Davenport. “We checked around with other parks around the state, and pretty much everyone else had gone to that 28-day policy because of the issues that long-term camping creates. We’ve gotten a lot of compliments since then from people who are appreciative of the change.”
County commission chairman Jeff Clemons said the new policy has been a boon for the campground’s appeal to outsiders, who’ve shown more interest and booked more overnight stays, for this time of year, than in the past.
“It’s packed, to be honest,” said Clemons. “Camping is bigger now than it’s ever been, in part because of the way people have responded to COVID. RV sales are up, and people are looking at public parks as a place to get out, which is big for us.
“One of the biggest complaints we would get from people is that the camping area at Smith Lake Park looked a little like a mobile home park, which is not the image of a county park that we want to convey. Before, you had folks who were essentially living there and using the camping spots intended for visiting guests. We had to take steps to address that, and the response we’ve gotten from guests has been very positive and enthusiastic.”
Though the extended stay policy has been in place for three months, a couple of long-term campers haven’t left, complaining to commissioners at a meeting earlier this year that they have nowhere else to go. The commission has so far kept a measured pace in negotiating for their departure.
Even with the small number of holdouts, though, Clemons said the commission and parks department are working to make Smith Lake Park and its campground a more user-friendly place for guests.
“We’ve got a lot more people wanting to come in and camp now,” he said. “We’re trying to have a fresh new look at Smith Lake Park. We’ve got new gates that will be installed soon, and those will be coded so that paying overnight campers can come and go, while limiting access at night so that people won’t just be coming in and out. That should address a lot of the overnight vandalism and theft issues that we’ve seen.”
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.