The sun rises over Rocky Fork Lake’s North Beach on Friday, Feb. 24. (HCP photo by Rory Ryan)
The sun rises over Rocky Fork Lake’s North Beach on Friday, Feb. 24. (HCP photo by Rory Ryan)
The sun is rising again above Rocky Fork Lake State Park.

Recent cause for a renewed optimism and community spirit was followed by a glorious late February sunrise and 77-degree temperatures on Friday, Feb. 24.

And, yes, those were, in fact, fishing boats parked at Bayview Bait and Tackle just off North Shore Drive as the sun was beginning to emerge Friday morning. What a grand sight in late winter.

This past weekend’s summer-like beginning brought a pleasant reminder of just how popular Rocky Fork Lake has been for more than half a century, and what it promises to be in the not-too-distant future.

At a recent Rocky Fork Community Alliance meeting, Alliance Vice President Ben Sexton hosted a slideshow presentation entitled “Rocky Fork Lake – The Early Days,” a compilation of old photos and memorabilia of the park’s history.

Mr. Sexton presented photos from contractors operating heavy, earth-moving equipment to swimmers and sunbathers at North Beach to the old “refreshment stand” off North Beach Road.

Among the lake’s earliest supports was Cincinnati resident Col. Walter H. Hutchins, who was a frequent visitor to the area. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Col. Hutchins first dreamed of building a dam near McCoppin's Mill. “He was the lake's biggest promoter and saw construction begin in 1949,” ODNR said.

One year later, in 1950, Rocky Fork became a state park, and the first water spilled over the dam in April 1953.

Since the summer of 1953, tens of thousands of people have visited Rocky Fork State Park over the ensuing 64 years.

The park – named after Rocky Fork Creek – is situated in 1,384 acres in eastern Highland County, and it remains a favorite of anglers, hikers, campers and water sports enthusiasts.

To be sure, the Paint Township community residents – as well as summer visitors – realize that the area would like to regain some of the park’s early luster. Considerable efforts are now under way to make this happen.

Since it was announced on Oct. 5, 2016 at a Highland County Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement Plan (RFL-ASAP) received a federal Department of Justice grant of $843,498 to begin improvements around the state park.

"The grant money will go a long way in dealing with the drug problems in Highland County as well as support economic development at the Rocky Fork Lake State Park,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.

As part of the early implementation of the grant resources, RFL-ASAP Site Coordinator LuAnn Winkle recently announced the opening of a substation for the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, courtesy of a cooperative effort with Sheriff Donnie Barrera and Jon Wisecup, president and CEO of Rockhold-Brown Bank. As The Highland County Press reported last week, the new HCSO station will be in the bank building on North Shore Drive.

In addition, at the Feb. 22 county commissioners’ meeting, commissioners Shane Wilkin, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton approved a resolution to adopt and implement the Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation (land bank). The resolution designates the new county land bank “as the agency for the reclamation, rehabilitation and reutilization of vacant, abandoned, tax-foreclosed and other real property within Highland County.”

Appointed to the land bank’s board were: Kathryn Allen of the Highland County Prosecutor’s Office; Paint Township trustee Randy Mustard; city of Hillsboro representative Charlie Guarino; and commissioners Britton and Wilkin.

The corporation will “act on behalf of and in cooperation with the Highland County commissioners in exercising the powers and performing the duties of the commissioners under Chapter 5722 of the Ohio Revised Code; directing the preparation of an agreement and plan in furtherance of these matters; and authorizing related matters.”

“The idea is to acquire troubled properties, get them cleaned up and back into being taxable property,” Wilkin said. “It's not that the county is looking to acquire and hold property,” he assured residents and taxpayers.

These new resources should soon result in new opportunities for the Rocky Fork Lake area residents and visitors as well as economic development.

RFL-ASAP Site Coordinator LuAnn Winkle has kept the community informed of the early progress, and we’re confident that she – and all those involved – will continue to do so.

Looking back, it’s quite possible that we have, on occasion, taken Rocky Fork Lake State Park for granted. It’s my opinion that the state of Ohio has been, in recent years, neglectful of the park’s amenities.

As someone who’s fished Rocky Fork Lake for decades, I remember not long ago when a visiting fisherman couldn’t find something as basic as a trash can in the park. Clearly, the state needs to do its part in the revitalization efforts at Rocky Fork Lake – as do the area residents and visitors.

Nonetheless, this weekend’s picturesque sunrise was a pleasant reminder that brighter days are, indeed, ahead for one of Highland County’s (and southern Ohio’s) treasures.

Thanks to all those – from the taxpayers to private businesses and residents to public officials – for lighting the way forward.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.