At the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, November 15, a workshop dealing with the fate of Rum Island Park was held. In a recent article in the Lake City Reporter, the Commission called it a “thorn in their side,” and criticized the kayak outfitters who used the boat ramp, and emphasized the neglect and vandalism.
This raised the ire of park users, who felt the criticism was unjustified. As luck would have it, OSFR board member Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, only a few months ago, had organized Friends of Rum Island, a local group of park users, with the goal of maintaining and cleaning the park. They meet every Tues. evening at the park and do routine cleaning.
During the commissioners’ session on Thursday, several people spoke in favor of the park, and the commissioners were impressed that the community was helping with the park. In fact, that appeared to be the key issue with Commissioner Williams, and his take was echoed by the other commissioners.
The ensuing dialogue between the county and the park supporters was up-beat and positive.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
“Don’t call it Scum Island”
Rum Island’s reputation decried
By CARL MCKINNEY
At the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, November 15, a workshop dealing with the fate of Rum Island Park was held. In a recent article in the Lake City Reporter, the Commission, called it a “thorn in their side,” and criticized the kayak outfitters who used the boar ramp, and emphasized the neglect and vandalism.
This raised the ire of park users, who felt the criticizim was unjustified. As luck would have it, OSFR board member Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, only a few months ago, had organized Friends of Rum Island, a local group of park users, with the goal of maintaining and cleaning the park. They meet every Tues. evening at the park and do routine cleaning.
During the commissioners’ session on Thursday, several people spoke in favor of the park, and the commissioners were impressed that the community was helping with the park. The ensuing dialogue between the county and the park supporters was up-beat and positive.
The “Scum Island” reputation is a far cry from the truth, one speaker said, a sentiment shared by the crowd.
Rum Island, a county-owned park and the only place in the community with free-to-access springs, became the topic of a passionate discussion Thursday night. Supporters of Rum Island spoke out during a County Commission workshop exploring options for the park, which has been criticized as problematic.
“Over the years, the county has experienced cases of vandalism and misconduct in the park,” said County Manager Ben Scott. Acting on a request from the board, Scott delivered a presentation about the possibility of privatizing management, handing the park over to the state, charging admission or some combination of the three.
The federal government deeded Rum Island to the county in the 1960s, Scott said, and part of the deal stipulates the Secretary of Interior must approve any changes to ownership or control. The state indicated it would only be interested in taking over if the property were adjacent to an existing state facility. “The answer that we got was basically ‘no,’” Scott said. Charging admission means working out a way to make sure people pay up, taking into consideration that it would cost money to have staff enforcing the fee, he said.
Two options that got widespread support were having a “work camper,” someone willing to watch over the park in exchange for a free campsite, and working with a volunteer group to maintain the property.
In previous meetings, commissioners Rusty DePratter and Ron Williams called attention to Rum Island and its image problem. Reality doesn’t reflect that perception of the park, said Jim Tatem, one of about 10 people who addressed the commission Thursday night. “This park is not a thorn,” Tatem said. “It is a jewel in your crown.” Tatem said he’s been visiting the park since the 1970s and has seen little vandalism and rowdy guests are rare. He called for a fee and permanent staff to maintain Rum Island, saying the park spurs economic activity and brings revenue to the county.
Steve Scott, of Friends of Rum Island, a social media-based group that meets there frequently, described the park as a breathtaking slice of nature. “Yes, there were some issues along the way, but that place has become the most beautiful park that y’all have now,” he said.
Doug Jipson, who co-owns outfitting company Rum 138 with wife Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, said Rum Island attracts tourists from all over, who eat at local restaurants and spend money at local businesses.
“And yet, I feel like the opposite,” he said. “You guys completely shun this park, treat it like a redheaded step-child.” Jipson said Rum Island should be treated as the gateway to the county, but the park is talked about as if it were named “Scum Island.”
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson opposed establishing an entrance fee. “This is a very impoverished community,” she said. Some families visit multiple times a day, Malwitz-Jipson said, and admission fees could eliminate much of that activity.
“This is where we go to have space and be out in nature,” she said. Malwitz-Jipson, an outspoken advocate for the park, said the county should consider keeping parking spaces limited to control overcrowding.
“If you limit the amount of parking spaces, you limit the amount of people trampling,” she said. The Tourist Development Council should dedicate funds to the park, Malwitz-Jipson said.
Commissioners lauded Malwitz-Jipson for her role in organizing the outpour of support for Rum Island. No board member spoke in favor of privatizing the park’s operations. Williams said the responsibility for maintaining Rum Island falls on both members of the public and the Board of County Commissioners. “That’s the only way it’s going to work,” he said. “… Working together, we can make it work.”
Commissioner Bucky Nash said he echoed Williams’ opinion, calling for the county to develop a relationship with a community-based group. Malwitz-Jipson would be a good candidate for a liason, Nash said. “So I’ll nominate her for that,” he said.
County Commission Chairman Tim Murphy said Rum Island has come a long way in recent years, but the county needs to better regulate commercial outfitters to prevent them from interfering with other people’s enjoyment of the park. “It’s not right for some of these outfitters to go out there and put a burden on the other people trying to enjoy their day,” Murphy said.
DePratter, who was the first board member to call on county staff to research privitization, said he was not actually in favor of doing so, but wanted to start a dialogue. DePratter said he also opposed charging fees. Instead, he said he supports the work camper proposal. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard of yet,” he said.
DePratter also said TDC should provide funding for the park.