Ben Simmons enjoys fishing from time to time, and while looking at a satellite image of Anniston one day, he noticed a lake he had never fished before.
Simmons discovered that it was Reilly Lake, a once-popular recreation spot for military families that closed in 1999 with the shuttering of Fort McClellan. Simmons has since gathered a group of supporters who hope to inspire the city of Anniston to buy the property and open it to the public, a proposal he will present to the City Council on Monday.
“A place that you can RV, camp and fish inside the city limits is a good thing,” he said. “It’s sad that it is completely gated off and forgotten about.”
Simmons said he created the Restore Reilly Lake Facebook page to assess whether people would support the project or not. More than 1,000 Facebook users have indicated their support for the page since it was created in November 2013.
“I’ve printed out eight pages of comments from people about why the lake is important to them and why we should restore it,” Simmons said. “For example, one lady said she caught her first fish there and has great memories.”
Inspired by the support community members showed on the Facebook page, Simmons met with Anniston City Manager Brian Johnson last month to discuss what was needed to move forward.
“I don’t know much about local government or restoring a lake and I said ‘What do I need to show you and the City Council to get this to happen,” Simmons said. “He said, in general terms, we would have to show community support and know what we are getting into.”
Since speaking with Johnson, supporters of the project have been signing petitions and gathering information about the lake. Much of that information came from Robin Scott, executive director of the McClellan Development Authority, which manages much of the former fort. He said he informed Simmons of multiple environmental concerns with the property. These include nearby landfills that would require monitoring, federally protected wetlands, gray bat habitats and archeological sites that require special care.
“There are all sorts of environmental related issues that have impacts on how you can utilize that property,” Scott said. “You have to be aware of them to figure out how to use it.”
Scott said the city has shown interest in buying the property in the past, but did not.
“We went through the entire process and at the last minute they decided not to take the property,” he said.
Johnson said whether or not Anniston needs more park land is one of the many questions city officials will need to answer.
“That’s a good question and it’s a political one,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of legitimate projects out there and we can’t do them all. That is the nature of politics, to prioritize the needs and look at the available resources.”
The first phase of the group’s proposal is to open the south side of the eight-acre lake with recreational vehicle hookups and campsites. Walking trails, RV hookups, playgrounds and pavilions are in place and Simmons said they’re still salvageable.
“The Army spent good money on the facilities there,” he said. “Give it another five years and they won’t beat all and we would be starting from scratch completely.”
Simmons said he realizes the city doesn’t have an unlimited budget, but that there is no question whether the lake would be used. He said it is something Anniston could be proud of.
“There is something about it that is just beautiful,” Simmons said. “It’s peaceful. People that have been there know that. The challenge comes from the fact that people don’t know it’s there. They don’t know that something like that is right around the corner.”