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Don Carter State Park opens after nearly 2 decades

POSTED: September 15, 2013 12:35 a.m.

Georgia’s newest state park is officially opening Monday, culminating a project that stretched over nearly two decades.

The 1,316-acre Don Carter State Park began as a view of tree-covered land from a helicopter by the park’s namesake, Gainesville businessman Don Carter, and former Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Tanner.

The DNR ended up buying land for what would be Hall County’s and Lake Lanier’s first state park, with that process lasting nearly 16 years. The park was financed by a $14 million bond package, with construction costs running about $11.5 million.

Construction began in November 2011 and, after battling a rainy 2013, the park had its “soft opening” on July 15, drawing some 3,000 people on the first day.

“It has been a humbling experience to have (the park) named in my honor when so many others are deserving of recognition for bringing this park to fruition,” Carter said.

So far, some 60,000 people have poured through the gates at 5000 N. Browning Bridge Road, which extends off Ga. 284/Clarks Bridge Road in North Hall.

“Things have been going real well,” park manager Will Wagner said. “We opened the park at a time that was good, then school went back into (session), so we saw a diminishing of crowds. But the weekends are still busy.”

Picnic shelters are renting out every Sunday with family reunions and church crowds, and cottages have had 80 percent occupancy on weekends, Wagner said.

“For a lot of customers, this is the first state park they’ve ever been to,” he said. “From my previous experience, I’ve seen a lot of state park people, but here we’ve seen a lot of local turnout.”

A quick look at demographics show that 70 percent are from Hall County, Wagner said.

But then, “we had a couple stay in our primitive tent sites from Colorado a few weekends ago, so we’ve had folks from everywhere.”

Carter, who served for 29 years on the state Board of Natural Resources, has said he envisions Don Carter as an affordable getaway for families.

“As a lifelong lover of the outdoors, it is my hope that many generations will come and visit the park and enjoy the many recreational opportunities it will provide,” he said.

The park features camping, boat ramps, fishing, picnicking, playgrounds, hiking, a swimming beach and trails. Eight rental cabins, with rocking-chair porches and fully equipped kitchens, opened after July 15.

An information sheet at the park’s visitor center says that kayak and bike rentals are “coming soon.”

Some 120 acres — or less than 10 percent — are developed.

“There are plans to build an orienteering course, trails system and tent campground over the next one to two years,” Wagner said.

However, “all of that new development, other than trails, will be roughly located within the 120 acres currently developed and not add much more to that number,” he said.

The remaining 90 percent “will be kept in conservation and for light development, such as trails and backcountry camping,” Wagner said.

The park has drawn raves from visitors.

Arriving on the first day with floats strapped to the roof of her vehicle, Tasha Smith of Cleveland described the park as “wonderful, beautiful.”

Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the park offers “an array of amenities that are in high demand on Lanier.

“My personal favorite spot is sitting in one of the swings overlooking the beach — pure bliss,” she said.

Dickson also gave kudos to Carter, “whose selfless dedication to preserving Georgia’s natural resources inspired the naming of this park. Future generations of lakegoers have this fine gentleman to thank when enjoying the park for years to come.”

Curt Soper, state director for the Trust for Public Land, also is pleased to see the park up and running.

The state park “is part of a larger Chattahoochee River protection campaign, for all of us to embrace the river and improve the quality of it, and to get people out there using and enjoying it,” Soper said.

Its opening “is the linchpin piece of the whole effort,” he added.

To date, 76 river miles have been acquired “and put in public hands,” said Soper, who visited the site while the park was under construction.

“I haven’t booked yet, but I’m not far behind,” he said.

Rich Depew of Gainesville was at the park Thursday, his first trip after seeing roadside signs with the park’s name.

“It’s nice it’s close to home,” he said, getting ready to leave with his girlfriend to check out the park’s amenities, particularly hiking trails and the beach. “The park looks nice and clean.”

The park also could be an economic blessing for Hall County.

Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for the DNR’s State Parks & Historic Sites, has said the park can be compared to the 1,776-acre Red Top Mountain State Park near Cartersville.

Red Top draws more than 700,000 visitors annually to Lake Allatoona, which, like Lanier, is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project.

And visitors spend more than $46 million in the surrounding community, “making the park a critical component of the local economy,” Hatcher said.

“It is estimated that this tourism supports more than 500 local jobs. Because of the similarities of these two parks, we expect Don Carter will also generate more than $46 million for the Gainesville-area economy.”

Carter’s son, Doug Carter, who is president and broker of Don Carter Realty Co., said, “This has certainly been an exciting time for my father, to see the park finally come to fruition, after years of discussion and planning.

“He has jokingly said to me several times, ‘I’m just glad I lived long enough to see it happen.’”


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