AVON PARK – There are over 100 lakes and other bodies of water around Highlands County, many of them used for boating and recreation -- that is, if people have access to them.
To help make most, if not all, of these lakes and rivers accessible to people who want to have a day out fishing, skiing or just relaxing on a bench, for the past three years, Ron McClure and his coworkers have been hammering away.
From lakes under 10 acres to the 27,600-acre Lake Istokpoga, Florida’s fifth largest, boat ramps and docks are integral to making counties appealing to visitors, new residents and old-timers.
In May, McClure, Highlands County building maintenance supervisor, and his crew -- Rex Caddell, Steven Becker and Guy Cult -- finished their 27th dock and ramp repair. July 3, they completed renovating the boat ramp at Lake Denton and now have six other lake boat ramp-docks lined up in their continuance of aquatic facility upgrades in maintenance.
As he stood on the dock Tuesday at Arbuckle Creek in the Burnt Out Bridge community, McClure looked over the work he completed there in May 19 after working for about a month. He said the majority of his work consists of extending or re-pouring concrete for boat ramps, extending docks, replacing wooden planks and re-applying weather-resistant treatment or sometimes, adding or expanding parking areas.
McClure, 65, who holds a general contractor and roofing license, said his first project in the current three-year cycle was in 2011 at Lake Letta in Avon Park, where he did ramp slab repairs and cleaned and expanded its width from 20 to 30 feet and his work at Lake Clay.
Since then, he and his crew have made stops for ramp and dock work at county lakes, including Lake Olivia, Lake Josephine and its three boat ramps, Lake Childs, Pioneer Lake, Lake Persimmon, Lake Viola, Lake Lelia (Gator Lake) and Boggy Branch, where he added eight parking spaces.
At each, said McClure, the goal is to make the facility more accessible, easier to use and most of all, safer for people and their cars and recreational equipment.
“I like to see people out enjoying these; people are using them,” said McClure, who began his construction career in 1968. “That’s the joy of it all, people fishing and using them for fun and recreation.”
To get McClure and his team in action, the dock-ramp renovation program funding comes through the Florida Boating Improvement Program administered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The funding provides money through competitive grants for projects for the needs of boaters and boating-related activities on coastal or inland waters within Florida.
Locally, the funding is then administered through Vicki Pontius, director of the Highlands County Parks and Natural Resources Department.
She said the funding originally comes from state vehicle registrations and about $48,000 has been used for the ramp-dock program since it started.
She said grant money for six additional lakes has been applied for through another source, the Florida Boating Improvement Grant program, and she is waiting for approval.
McClure said on average, it costs between $4,000 and $5,000 per ramp and dock to make improvements or do maintenance work.
“It’s an ongoing process; we get them all improved and then eventually, we have to start over again,” she said. “A lot of people move here after a vacation because of the beautiful lakes in Highlands County. We just want to improve the quality of the lakes for everyone in Highlands County.”
Boater-fisherman Carl Beckman said he has seen changes for the better in county lake facilities. An avid fisherman for over 20 years, he said he has seen “major improvements” in access, particularly at Lake Istokpoga park, Lake Jackson and Lake June in Winter.
“It makes it more enticing to get out and stay local to fish; what they’ve done has made getting out on the water really good,” said Beckman, 36, of Sebring.
Next on McClure and his team’s schedule will be the Lake Childs boat ramp in Lake Placid, where a main dock 6-foot-wide by 96-foot-long and a gangway 3 feet by 20 feet will lead to a 6-foot by 20-foot loading dock. Work there should start in October and be finished by Thanksgiving. In addition, more work on boating and fishing facilities at Pioneer Lake and lakes Viola, Leila and Adelaide in Avon Park will be done.
In addition to his work to help make the county a more desirable place to work and play, McClure also said he hopes it would become a small part of his mark on the area: he is retiring in December 2015.
“I want these to last. I know they need good quality work and materials and you get what you pay for,” he said. “I want them around for a long time so I put a bit more work into each one.”