Visit Anderson chief proud to have hand in putting on Classic
If you build it, they will come.
Neil Paul didn’t hear that walking around a cornfield, but he followed that voice in his head. Paul, 47, took the reins as executive director at Visit Anderson shortly after the 2015 Classic, and his work since has been to make Lake Hartwell and Green Pond Landing and Event Center a premier destination for bass tournaments.
“I always felt Lake Hartwell is our greatest resource and Green Pond our greatest asset, so we put all our eggs in that basket,” said Paul, who’s proud to have a hand in bringing the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk back to his community.
When the 55-angler field fishes March 4-6, it will be the fourth Classic on Hartwell, tying Lay Lake and the Louisiana Delta for the most championships in 52 years. The 2018 Classic, with fishing on Hartwell and weigh-ins and Expo in Greenville, set a record attendance of 143,323. It’s been topped twice since, and Paul has hopes it’s broken again this year.
Even if it isn’t, Paul will still be beaming for the community and its people, many of whom began contacting him to offer their help as soon as the event was announced.
“Emotionally, it’s a tremendous high,” he said putting on a Classic. “It’s all about the county and our community, the people who give so much time and effort at all the events, the hoteliers and restauranteurs, just all those folks. It’s knowing you did your best and these people get to benefit.”
Jumping in with both feet
Paul grew up pleasure fishing with his father and grandfather, but he started his path to the business side after becoming Visit Anderson’s sales manager in 2010. He dug in, saying his desire to learn became an addiction. His eyes were opened that tournament fishing could be an economic driver for tourism.
In 2008, Hartwell had stepped in to host its first Classic after issues with another venue. It wasn’t totally ready for the enormity of the event, with hundreds of media members, sponsors and fans all clamoring to get up close and personal with the action.
“The dock at Portman Marina was literally submerged in the water, and it was over people’s feet,” Paul said. “But the county saw the potential of what fishing could do for a community. That’s where the dream was born.”
Matt Schell, the parks manager for Anderson County, was among those pushing for a top-flight launch facility. With some settlement money and federal grants, the county purchased the peninsula and built Green Pond, which was opened in Dec. 2014 in time for the 2015 Classic.
“B.A.S.S. has really been a part of every constructive phase at Green Pond,” Paul said. “We’ve asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’ There’s been times when the county has changed plans on recommendations from B.A.S.S. That’s been critical to host the premier event in all of bass fishing.”
Shortly after the 2015 Classic, Paul became interim director. With advice from Chris Stone of Visit Greenville to “sell what you have,” Paul created a “fairly aggressive marketing plan” centered on Green Pond and tournaments. The interim was soon removed, and Paul fed off the momentum of the 2015 Classic.
“The lake’s been there for over 50 years. By and large, it’s a solid fishery,” he said. “It’s consistently rated among the top 100, and we have a tremendous community. Green Pond was the glue that put them together.”
There have been phases of development on Green Pond’s 30 acres, just south of I-85. Its three launch ramps are the deepest on the lake, and nothing surpasses the 5,000 square feet of dock space. It boasts 200 paved truck-and-trailer spaces, 100 paved spaces for vehicles and more grass parking.
Since the record-setting 2018 Classic, a $600,000 restroom facility was added for the 2019 Bassmaster Elite tournament. New features include electric outlets, creating a boatyard for events like the B.A.S.S. Nation and a 1,500-seat amphitheater.
“The continued development in the facility has been so critical,” Paul said. “It was a good investment for the community. Nobody in that same area has what we have, a top five facility in the nation.”
Securing fourth Classic
A key to success is that five of the top 10 states in B.A.S.S. membership circle South Carolina, making it an easy drive. Paul is quick to note that if Hartwell were a national park, its 10.5 million visitors annually would rank fourth.
Having regional entities work together is also critical, like Visit Greenville, the cities, counties, state and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Steps have to be done in concert and well in advance. For the 2015 Classic in February, the first meeting with B.A.S.S. officials was in April of 2013, said Paul, who offered some perspective on what is required to win the bidding process.
“When you sit down at the table to negotiate a Classic, there’s really four things,” he said. “You’ve got to have the arena that meets the seating requirement, I think it’s upwards of 15,000. You’ve got to have the expo space, somewhere in the 200,000- to 250,000-square-foot range. Then you need a championship-caliber fishery with the facilities and infrastructure to be able to hold the Classic, whether it’s the boats, the crowds, the internet capabilities, the people, the parking, the whole nine yards.
“Then the fourth thing is the financial commitment that comes with it. Fortunately for us, we’ve done this now four times so the conversation is a little different. It becomes about what year is going to work, what dates, then putting the financial package together. To give you an idea without discussing numbers, on this particular Classic, we’ve got nine financial partners.”
Apparently, they enjoy the returns on their investment. There have been 14 Bassmaster tournaments at Green Pond since 2014, generating about $56 million in economic impact for the Upcountry, with the past two Classics responsible for the lion’s share. Paul said a Classic shares the wealth to most corners of the region, with accompanying events like the High School and College Classic events on Lake Keowee and the Kayak Series Championship on Lake Russell.
Becoming a familiar face
Paul’s deep dive into the bass fishing world took him to other tournaments and Classics, where he’s become a familiar face, greeting most with a hearty hello, firm handshake and kind words. In 2018, he also began serving as a Marshal, hoping to gain more knowledge on fishing and its competitors.
“I’m a sponge to it. I’m passionate about it,” he said. “If I had to go fish tournaments for a living, I’d starve to death. I know I’m not a tournament angler, but I live vicariously through every one of the guys. The thing I like most about Marshaling, I wanted to see that side of the competition. I want to see what makes each guy tick, how they prepare, how they handle adversity, success.
“There’s an education component. You get to sit in that guy’s office and watch him work for a day. I’ve probably learned as much about fishing that wasn’t tied to the end of the line than I have on things that were tied on.”
One particular day was noteworthy. In the third-to-last event of the 2021 Elite season, Paul was paired with Seth Feider, who led the Bassmaser Angler of the Year race. He said Feider was forthcoming, saying it was “a big day for us.”
“That’s the first time I heard an angler talk about AOY points,” Paul said. “He knew exactly how many points he could lose if he didn’t have a good day. He said, ‘I think about it every day. I want it.’ That let me see his mindset and how locked in and focused he was.”
Besides his Marshal duties of entering weights on BassTrakk, taking photos and writing blogs and reports like his “10 takeaways,” Paul said he wants to fish better. Often asked if he’s there to drum up more business, Paul says no. He also gets introduced to tourism folks from that region, but he’d rather not talk shop.
“I almost want to go hide from them,” he said. “That’s my time to unplug and be a fish head and talk about tackle. I’m a fan like everybody else. I want to be able to catch fish better than I catch them. That’s 100% personal. Marshaling has made me a better angler fun fishing around the house.”
That pushed him deeper in the industry, where he’s recognizable to most. Last fall, Paul again jumped in feet first when asked if he’d serve on the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame board of directors — “I was probably as excited for the opportunity to serve as being inducted.”
Here, there, everywhere
Along with heading Visit Anderson, Paul is volunteer coordinator for the Classic, scheduling the Marshals, media boats, the boat yard and arena crews, among other duties.
“There’s been a few times I’ve felt like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” he said. “It’s been really cool, watching the community get involved, from the caterers, the golf cart people. We have people at Anderson College doing the national anthem.”
It’s sure his phone will be ringing off the hook during the event, but where exactly might we find you?
“Everywhere,” he said. “I’ll be at takeoffs each morning, at the Expo during the day and at the weigh-ins in the afternoon. In between, I’ll be working with my volunteers at the various checkpoints, whether the takeoff or the boatyard, or somewhere around the event in the evening.”
A former basketball coach who was fired because “we didn’t win enough games,” Paul said he approaches events like games. Hosting a tournament is akin to a competition, with all the scouting, preparing and developing a game plan.
“I love getting in the office early and staying late at night and really grinding on the details,” he said. “The success of anything you do is won or lost in the details. Then you play, win or lose. That’s sort of the mindset I’ve taken, and the Classic is your championship.”
Yes, it certainly is. With a forecast of warming days and clear skies, the 2022 Hartwell Classic is shaping up as a win for Paul and the hosts, who know their venues will be featured on FOX Sports broadcasts.
“I feel very strongly about this lake, and to see it featured this way, there’s just a tremendous amount of pride there,” Paul said. “Personally, for me, the 55 guys who compete and pursue a dream, I live vicariously through them. I’ve got a lot of good friends out there and knowing you get a front seat to watch them pursue something that’s so important to them and their families, there’s no greater excitement than that.”
Come Sunday evening, the Classic trophy in hand will ease one angler’s pain, after a hard-fought week on Lake Hartwell, this year’s lake of dreams.
If you build it, they will come.