New Life for a Small Town Through Natural Resources

The town of Calhoun Falls, in Abbeville County, has a population of just over 2,000 people. Like so many other small towns in South Carolina, it was once supported by a textile mill that has since closed, leaving residents and town officials to search for new ways to survive and thrive economically.

Unlike a lot of those towns, though, what Calhoun Falls has in abundance is access to natural resources. Most notably, it sits right on the shores of Lake Russell, which is part of nearly 120 miles of contiguous reservoir habitat, along with Lakes Hartwell and Thurmond.

Lake Russell is unique in that it is undeveloped, with no private docks anywhere on the lake.

Just shy of 9,900 acres of surface water offer ample opportunities for fishing and boating, and the state park recreation areas allow visitors to enjoy picnics, seasonal swimming, hiking, and even tennis and basketball.

Last weekend was the 2nd annual paddlefest event at the lake, where around 30 kayaks were involved in an introductory session to about 75 participants. The purpose of the event, in addition to being a fun day on the lake, is to educate locals about the incredible recreational opportunities at Lake Russell.

The town of Calhoun Falls, under the direction of Mayor Lee Garrett, received a $250,000 grant, of which $90,000 has been spent to renovate the town's recreation area, known locally as the Blue Hole Recreation Area, with a new pier, boat dock, and picnic areas. As the primary lessee from the Corps of Engineers, the town has significant leeway to develop the 123-acre recreational area that is adjacent to Calhoun Falls State Park, making the area the largest contiguous recreational area in the Upstate.

The town is currently soliciting bids to construct a concert pavilion, which will draw a different group of visitors to the area. "We don't want there to be any restrictions as to who can play there," says Mayor Garrett, "so we're making sure the space and power supply are ample for any band."

An additional $100,000 has been secured to complete a trail system that will connect with the Calhoun Falls State Park. Garrett says the trail is modeled after what the city of Greenville did with the Swamp Rabbit trail. Currently the state park is accessible by water from the Blue Hole marina without going out onto the open water of the lake; the trail system would add a land connection; and town officials are looking at the possibility of adding a zip line for air accessibility as well.

A further boon for the town came earlier this year when Calhoun Falls was named as one of four towns in the U.S. to participate in the Livability Initiative, an effort to help America's Gateway Communities - those adjacent to wildlife refuges, parks, forests, and other treasured public lands - to assess, understand and improve the unique natural assets that make them appealing places to live, work, and recreate. (The other communities selected are Sweet Home, Oregon; Grand Lake, Colorado; and the City of Saginaw with Spaulding and James Townships, Michigan.)

Of the initiative and the town's improvements, Mayor Garrett says, "We're taking what we have and being creative and innovative with it. We're rebranding ourselves as a town from being a mill town to being a gateway to the natural resources in our area. Rather than competing with all of the other small towns that are in the same position we are, what we want to do is to serve the I-85 corridor with recreational opportunities."

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.