Appalachian Power Co. created Smith Mountain Lake to generate electricity. But the lake, which reached full pond 50 years ago Monday, has generated far more.
The lake brought opportunity. Previously rural farmland in Franklin County now was poised to become lucrative waterfront property. Build a 20,000-acre lake with 500 miles of shoreline, and change will come.
Despite the benefits that accompanied the lake — the two magisterial districts including the lake provide nearly 60 percent of the county’s real estate tax revenue, a number touted by many making the case for the lake — some county residents haven’t taken kindly to the arrival of new neighbors.
The lake has changed the makeup of Franklin County, with newcomers — many of them retirees from areas like Northern Virginia, New York and New Jersey — settling in the South.
“If you were to just walk around the lake and say, ‘Where are you from?’ — you’re just going to be amazed at how few people say, ‘Oh I was born and raised here in Franklin County.’ That is the anomaly,” said Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The influx of new arrivals caused tension. Gardner, who grew up on Cayuga Lake in New York, said there were times when she’d offer her hand to someone, and that person would decline to shake it.
A divide developed between the longtime Franklin County residents and the “lake people.” Many people say the gap has closed over the years but still exists 50 years after the lake’s creation.
“It’s sort of like the old saying, if you come here and want to become one of us, more power to you. If you come here and want to change us, pack your bags,” said Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tim Tatum. “You know, you come here and you want to become part of Franklin County — Franklin County is a great place to live — but don’t come here thinking you’re going to change us. Because we think we’ve got it right.”
People who don’t live at the lake see its residents as “snobby rich people,” said lake resident Tom Tanner. But they help fund major county projects as well as a school system that many lake residents, as retirees with grown children, don’t use, Tanner said.
“It’s kind of like there’s two counties in Franklin County,” he said.
People are drawn to the lake and Franklin County because of its rural beauty, slower pace and low taxes. Many transplants prefer it to the congested, metropolitan areas they come from.
Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson said he’s not bothered by growth and development at the lake. What does bother him are those who move to the area because they want something different, and then end up trying to make it exactly like the place they left behind.
“You’re moving into the country,” Thompson said. “There’s not a store on every corner, there’s not a fire station on every corner, there’s not a police car on every corner.”
The sentiment among many county residents is that growth and development at the lake is fine — as long as it stays at the lake. They don’t want subdivisions and shopping centers popping up in their back yards.
Gardner understands part of the tension: Rural communities had to fight for services, and then resources suddenly were directed to wealthy newcomers. At least that’s the perception, she said.
“The people that were truly opposed to those darn Yankees, those rich lake Yankees that came here, were thinking that the services were being given to this wealthy group as opposed to fulfilling the needs of the community,” Gardner said.
Though it has taken years, the relationships are improving. New arrivals at the lake have gotten involved in the community, as leaders and volunteers, and shown they care about what happens not just to the lake but to the county as a whole. They might not be from Franklin County, but they’ve adopted it as their home.
“I really feel as though it’s ‘we’ now or becoming closer and closer to ‘we’ as opposed to ‘them and us,’ those people that came in here and have crowded our beautiful region,” Gardner said.
Karen Hiltz, who served on the county’s planning commission and now represents Gills Creek on the school board, said she’d always heard “there’s resentment, that we’re invading their territory.” And when she joined the planning commission, she wasn’t exactly “welcomed with open arms” as an outsider from Northern Virginia.
But after a career in the military, Hiltz said she’s grown used to the role of newcomer.
“I am a firm believer that if you are respectful and considerate to people, maybe they won’t welcome you at first, but as long as you’re genuine and show respect and consideration, you will build that bond, build that trust, start building that relationship,” she said.
And with so many transplants getting involved in the community — like Gardner and Hiltz — they have started to prove themselves.
Few people saw the lake’s potential. They just saw change, which for many was unwelcome. Many residents acknowledge that counties surrounding the lake had very little to do with its transformation. Private developers and Appalachian Power saw more.
“We had some good insight in how to market this place by some of the early developers,” said Gills Creek District Supervisor Bob Camicia. “County didn’t do it. County gave no help whatsoever. None, zip. They fought them as much as anything.”
Franklin County local Ron Willard was among the private developers. He grew up on a tobacco farm just 3 1/2 miles from his company’s offices in Westlake Towne Center, which has become the center of gravity for much of the lake community.
When he graduated from high school, the lake had started to fill. Willard left Franklin County to work for a general contractor in Danville. He traveled to places such as Lake Wylie on the North Carolina-South Carolina border and Lake Norman in North Carolina. He saw the development there, and knew it could be replicated at Smith Mountain Lake.
At age 28, he started his own company. At 31, he purchased the land for his first single-family home development, The Waterfront.
Today, Willard’s company has developed more than 3,000 acres and 30 miles of shoreline. It built two country clubs and golf courses, and bought and restored another. It brought the first bank, the first town center, the first liquor store and the first movie theater to Smith Mountain Lake, Willard said.
Appalachian Power also knew what bringing a lake to the area would mean.
During a 1959 meeting with the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, two Appalachian Power officials “pointed out that housing and recreational developments will mushroom along the new lake when it is ready to use,” according to a Franklin News-Post story.
A 1963 story by The Roanoke Times highlights the conflicting views among area residents and power company officials. The piece notes that an Appalachian Power official said he thought people were “being short-sighted about the potential of Smith Mountain Dam if all they think about it is recreational appeal.” He stressed the importance of ensuring the area was thoughtfully developed. That, he said, could lead to the area becoming “a major recreational and industrial section.”
If people had known what the lake would become, many will tell you, they would’ve bought a lot more land.
Most agree it makes sense. An inland body of water with 500 miles of shoreline, where you can build a home that doesn’t require hurricane insurance, makes for a desirable market, said Bruce Shelton, lake resident and manager of Capps Home Building Center.
“I think it was only a matter of time, because this area had so much to offer,” he said. “It has been a very well-kept secret up until probably the last 15 years or so.”
It’s not a secret anymore.
Word of mouth
Once people find their way to Smith Mountain Lake — to visit friends and family or take a vacation — they get hooked on the place and decide it’s where they want to be next, for many people as retirees.
That’s how Camicia, a Kentucky native, ended up at the lake.
He’d always been aware of the lake — it was being built when he was studying engineering at Virginia Tech in the 1960s. The college took students to see what Camicia described as “one of the engineering marvels of the world at that time.” But he never made the trip. The people who did said traveling to the dam was not unlike traveling to the ends of the earth, Camicia recalled.
Years later, when Camicia was living in New Jersey, he heard from his wife’s cousin in Roanoke that the lake was starting to grow and attract businesses and amenities. Camicia and his wife decided to try a vacation there — and kept coming back over the next decade, regardless of where they were living at the time. Eventually, they bought land in Franklin County to build their retirement home. Camicia’s been at the lake full time since 2001.
“You’d be surprised how many people have a similar story,” Camicia said. “They came down here through the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s and vacationed a couple of times or just drove through and saw the place and stopped off and talked to some people and eventually decided, hey, we’re going to retire down there.”
The cycle repeats itself. New residents tell friends about the lake, and after a few visits, the friends decide to retire there, too.
Camicia reconnected with a friend who’d lived across the hall from him at Virginia Tech. The two had lost touch when the friend, who was living in New Jersey at the time, saw a picture of Camicia at the lake in a newspaper. Camicia’s friend came for a few visits and, though he was planning to retire elsewhere, opted to move to Smith Mountain Lake.
The lake, in a largely organic way, has become a retirement hot spot.
The cost of living is low and the prices on land and homes are reasonable, especially for people relocating from areas like Northern Virginia. There are several country clubs and golf courses. The development of Westlake provides a suburban vibe in an otherwise rural area. And, of course, the lake provides a relaxing backdrop.
There are several benefits to attracting retirees, the most obvious that, while their tax dollars play a significant role in funding local schools, they usually do not bring along children for the system to educate.
They also make substantial investments in the county — some upward of a million dollars — with the homes they build, and have time to volunteer and give back to the community.
Without trying, Smith Mountain Lake has established itself in the retirement market.
“That’s a tough market to market into unless you’re a big player in it,” Camicia said. “And we are a sizable player in the retirement market.”
Though it’s largely an amalgamation of outsiders, there is a strong sense of community at the lake. That there are more full-time residents these days plays a big part, Tanner said. When he moved to the lake in 1985, there were hardly any full-time residents in his subdivision or others. Tanner estimates that about three-fourths of the homeowners living in the Franklin County subdivision where his family is planning to build live at the lake full time.
While some people might not like the change it has caused, Smith Mountain Lake put Franklin County on the map, drawing people from across the country.
“You look back even 20 years ago, certainly 30 years ago when we moved down there, the lake was just some water up there outside of Roanoke,” Tanner said. “Now it’s a draw to the community, it’s a vacation spot, a tourist attraction.”
When he first moved to the lake, there wasn’t much there — no grocery store, no stoplights and just a handful of restaurants.
Occasionally, Tanner said, he’s nostalgic for the way things used to be.
“Except when I want to go get something from the grocery store,” Tanner said. “I mean, I certainly miss the days when it was, you know, especially in the summer, when you go out on the lake and not have a thousand boats out there. You could drive from one side of the lake to the other and see like three boats. But, you know, that’s part of growth, progress.”
Though the areas closest to the lake have built up, lake residents don’t have to travel far for that rural feel, much to the relief of other county residents.
“The thing I like about Franklin County is that you can experience more of a suburban setting here in Westlake but yet you can go out to tractor days, and you can go to Ferrum, and you can go to Callaway, and you can be out in the country. And that’s the beauty of this county,” Shelton said.
“Before I think you had supervisors that were probably less willing to approve things that were lake-related because they wanted the whole county to stay rural and I think they’ve seen that you can still create a suburban environment here at the Westlake area and still have a rural county.”
Much of the rapid growth at the lake in recent years has been centered in Westlake, and Willard expects Southlake in Union Hall will be next. Westlake has two stoplights, soon to be three, whereas Southlake has none. Some might lament the changes but, Willard said, “that’s prosperity.”
People ought to get on board, he said.
“People that resist change are greedy. And people that don’t understand change are selfish,” Willard said. “Change is: if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
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