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Friday March 18, 2016

Philpott Lake Operations Project Manager Rocky Rockwell was honored recently with the American Recreation Coalition’s Legends Award at the “Partners Outdoors 2015” conference, held in Washington, DC.  He was cited in the awards submission, prepared by Wilmington District Chief of Operations Daniel Brown, for the way he “expanded and enhanced recreational opportunities through public/private partnerships” at Philpott. 

Rocky is a natural extrovert, and when he arrived as the new manager at Philpott in 2009, he met with his assistant manager Earl Wright to explore ways they would work together.  He discovered that Wright had also applied for the OPM position, and Rocky asked him what role attracted him to the position.  Rocky was delighted to learn that Wright wanted to work closely with the rangers, because he saw a very different role for himself.  He had become aware of the need to carve out a far more visible and publicly engaged role for the lake’s OPM, and he saw himself working to raise the lake’s profile and develop relationships within the community, a natural role for his extroverted personality. He’d leave day-to-day operations to Wright. 

When Rocky discovered that the area was reeling from job losses and plant closures, he quickly recognized that tourism could boost the ailing economy and looked to the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area annually, to lure visitors—and tourist dollars—to the area.  If he could encourage these travelers to stop and spend some time fishing, hiking, swimming or simply enjoying the delightful scenery at the lake, he could improve the economic health of the area.

Soon after Rocky arrived at the project, he learned that the project did not have the specific facilities required by championship fishing tournaments.  These tournaments attract tens of thousands of visitors to lakes like Philpott, and he knew the significance of the FLW and Bassmaster events to the local culture and economy.  But where would he get the funds to make the necessary improvements to the lake’s infrastructure? 

Rocky reached out to the local tourism officers with a proposal: Help Philpott Lake build an attractive fishing tournament facility and continue luring these important events—and visitors--to the lake.  He cited the lake’s 650,000 annual visitors and the average $30 per person that they bring with them, yielding a total economic impact of more than $20 million.  Did the local brass want to lure more tourists, and their dollars?

They did, and they helped Philpott with the project.  Franklin County’s tourism chief Michael Burnett committed to $50k, enough to launch the estimated $120-170k project by financing a new dock at a little-used day use facility.   Now, the facility regularly attracts tournaments and thousands of visitors.  The first major tournament held at the new facility was the FLW Northern District College Bass Tournament, and this event alone brought in more than $500,000 to the local economy during the week of the tournament.   Because it was a nationally televised event, the visitation at the lake increased dramatically, leveraging the return on the original $50,000 investment to more than $1.5 million in economic impact. The lake’s visitation in the meantime climbed to more than 750,000.

Shifting his focus to the lake’s recently destroyed marina, which burned down in 2001, Rocky reached out to Henry County to solicit support for a new marina.  He met with controversy, as many local citizens like to think of Philpott as “their” private lake and fishing hole, a well-kept secret they didn’t feel like sharing.  Countering these objections with his well-rehearsed economic development figures, he encouraged the county officials to rethink their position in light of their desire to improve the area’s quality of life and attract business, and they approved the project.  In 2014 the county opened the doors of its new marina with 42 slips, a convenience store, a picnic area and fueling stations.    Two years later, all the slips are rented and the marina boasts a long waiting list.   As part of the marina lease, the county also assumed responsibility for a previously underutilized group campground and redeveloped the facility.   The 11-site campground is now reserved every weekend during the recreation season. 

Rocky is also a big believer in keeping the public informed of the lake’s activities and maintaining contact with local media.  “When editors are accustomed to associating your project with good news, you have a better chance of getting fair coverage when you’re dealing with bad news,” said Rocky.  A Google search of Philpott’s recent coverage in the media reveals numerous stories about the new marina, maintenance activities at the dam and volunteer activities, and many of these stories include positive comments from local officials and visitors. 

Other successful projects Rocky and his team have launched or refined in the past seven years include:

  • The six-mile Jamison Mill Trail System, created with support from partners like the Friends of Philpott, Franklin County, Henry County Bike Club and others. The multiple-loop trail has put Philpott on the map for cyclists and hikers alike. 
  • The merger of the Friends of Philpott Lake with the Dan River Basin Association, an established non-profit with greater resources and broader goals. The merged organization leveraged other partnerships to establish a blue ways paddle trail on Philpott, complete a bridge and provide other improvements to improve the lake’s recreation program. 
  • The integration of the lake’s volunteer program into its day-to-day operations. Rocky’s team, which he calls “Team Philpott,” also enhanced the Volunteer Village to attract new volunteers. 
  • The Beach Watch program in which volunteers engage with visitors at swim beaches and boat launches to provide helpful tips for safe enjoyment of the water.

Rocky contributes to the Corps’ continued success by representing the South Atlantic Division on the Operations Project Manager (OPM) Community of Practice Advisory Board, providing guidance and support to OPMs nationwide.  It’s Rocky’s way of providing support to the next generation of OPMs. 

Even with all his successes, Rocky is modest of his accomplishments and points to the contributions of his team at Philpott, referring to them as the real winners.  “We are all in this together,” he said.  “I just do my best to make sure everyone achieves what they want to achieve.  The best thing I can do for my team is to stay out of their way.” 

Tags: Bassett, Boating, Henry County, Local Business, Outdoor Recreation, Paddling, Philpott Lake, , ,