The wheels are in motion for the commonly known Elks Lake and its surrounding trails to officially become Lehigh Portland State Park.
State Rep. Fred Gardner, R-Garnett, introduced the legislation Thursday afternoon before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
The matter must be approved by state legislators and ultimately by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Gardner contacted the Register shortly before he introduced the bill, saying “This is the first step in getting this lake and surrounding land transferred from Iola Industries to the state park system.
“I look forward to participating in the process of the state accepting this donation.”
IOLA INDUSTRIES, a 68-year-old local organization whose goals include economic development, has owned the land since the demise of the Lehigh Portland Cement plant in 1971.
The organization is gifting the lake and its surrounding property, an estimated 360 acres, to the state in order for it to be developed into a state park.
Eventual plans include a welcome center and cabins as well as staffing. The site will be open for camping, swimming and fishing, and include the extensive trail system developed by Thrive Allen County and its innumerable volunteers.
“It should belong to the people,” said John McRae, president of Iola Industries, noting the goal for it to be a state park was unanimously endorsed by its 15-member board.
“All along our goal has been to make the lake accessible to the public,” he said.
But it hasn’t been easy.
Initial efforts to develop the 138-acre quarry into a state fishing lake were rebuffed by Kansas Fish and Game commissioners in 1978.
The site then was but a shadow of what it has become today. The quarry had little water and the surrounding landscape had been stripped bare for the cement plant’s vast mining operation.
Forty-five years later, underground springs have filled the quarry with crystal clear water. Trees and grasses have reclaimed the scarred land.
“They couldn’t envision what it could be today,” said Lisse Regehr, CEO of Thrive Allen County, and instrumental in working with Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks officials in seeing the property become a state park.
“Today, the lake is 40 feet deep in places and surrounded by trails winding through woods,” she said. Visitors and newcomers mention the biking and walking trails as a key reason they come this way, Regehr said.
In 2018, Iola Industries offered the site to Allen County officials for $1.4 million. They demurred.
The lake’s estimated value is $2 million, according to real estate agents in 2018 who at the time were surveying other properties owned by Iola Industries.
Since 1982, Iola Industries had leased the lake to the local Elks club for $1 a year.
This last fall, the organization notified Elks leadership that it would not renew the lease.
Iola Industries refrained from giving a reason for not renewing the lease for fear it would jeopardize the departmental and legislative process necessary for it becoming a state park.
In addition to Regehr, helping steer the process has been John Leahy, Thrive’s director of trails, and Jonathon Goering, Thrive’s former economic development director.
Paperwork was first sent in June to officials with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Rep. Gardner’s introduction Thursday lets the cat out of the bag.
“Whoopee!,” shouted Mary Kay Heard, chairman of the Iola Industries board of directors.
“Keeping this under wraps has been difficult. I was hoping people would trust Iola Industries that this is going to be something good.
“It’s going to be the biggest economic development opportunity in Allen County in over 30 years,” Heard said, noting the introduction of Russell Stover Candies to Iola in 1995.
“It’s such a thrill for Iola Industries to be able to make a gift of this magnitude,” she said. “I’m confident it’s going to boost existing businesses and help lure new ones our way.”
Jim Gilpin, secretary of Iola Industries, said, “It’s a tremendous compliment to the Elks for keeping the lake in pristine condition over the years and to Thrive Allen County for developing the trails to make the property as attractive as it is.
“What was once an ‘attractive nuisance’ for Iola Industries has become a destination for people to enjoy. It has become a real treasure for Allen County and now will become even more so.”
Gilpin predicts the presence of a state park “will enhance the quality of life and potentially draw all generations this way. We’ll have the amenities to attract younger and older populations. It will be a great vehicle for growth.”
Gilpin noted the designation of a state park fits in perfectly with Allen County’s “Culture of Health” recognition in 2017 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“It’s a lesson that you can’t sit on your laurels and have to keep working for bigger and better things.”
REP. GARDNER tempered his enthusiasm with the reality that the legislation may not pass.
“Just because a bill gets introduced, doesn’t mean it’s a done deal,” he said. “There are many steps involved.”
The fact the site is being gifted to the state and has been developed to some extent should play in its favor, he said.
It’s a dream many see paying forward.
“This isn’t just about business or economic development,” said Regehr, “but about preserving a beautiful place for generations to come.”