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Brasstown Bald, Anna Ruby Falls want people to operate their shops
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After an unsuccessful search last spring for a concessionaire to run a retail shop at Brasstown Bald, the U.S. Forest Service is trying again. Only this time, the agency is sweetening the deal.

"We had some interest last year, but no one wanted to commit to a one-year contract," said Alan Polk, chief ranger of the Chattahoochee National Forest’s Blue Ridge district. "This time, we’re offering a three-year contract, with a potential two-year extension."

Also, the winning bidder will have more opportunities to make money.

"They will operate not only the cabin but run the shuttle and offer limited food service," Polk said.

Brasstown Bald is Georgia’s highest peak, at 4,784 feet above sea level. The U.S. Forest Service operates a visitor center at the top of the mountain. About half a mile below, there’s a large parking lot, restrooms and a 1,900-square-foot log cabin.

Until 2005, a Gainesville-based forest support group ran a gift shop in the cabin. But the Forest Service severed its agreement with that organization, and the cabin has been vacant ever since.

Most visitors reach the top of the mountain by walking up a steep path, but for those who are unable to make the climb, there’s a van that shuttles people from the parking lot up to the visitor center.

"A local business has been operating the shuttle, but their permit has expired, so we’re offering that to whoever gets the bid on the cabin," Polk said.

Earlier this year, the Forest Service considered turning over the entire Brasstown complex, including the visitor center, to a concessionaire. But that idea has been nixed, Polk said.

"We looked at all the options, and we decided that for now it would be best for us to continue managing the visitor center."

The mountaintop center is closed in the winter. Polk said they hope to have a concessionaire take over the cabin and shuttle before the center reopens at the beginning of April.

Whoever runs the gift shop can expect plenty of visitor traffic. About 80,000 people come to Brasstown each year, and visitation swells when there are special events.

The 2008 Tour de Georgia bicycle race is scheduled to end its final road stage at Brasstown on April 26, as it has for the past four years.

"The crowd for the race has ranged anywhere from 6,000 to 20,000," said Polk. "It brings a lot of people to Brasstown who would otherwise never see it."

Under previous operators, the gift shop averaged gross revenue of about $160,000 a year, and the shuttle service earned about $60,000.

"We will get a percentage of the concessionaire’s revenue that we can use for maintenance on the property," said Polk.

A complete prospectus of the business contract is available at the forest’s Web site, and applications will be accepted until Feb. 11.

In addition, the deadline is fast approaching to bid on running the gift shop and visitor center at Anna Ruby Falls, the Chattahoochee National Forest’s most popular tourist attraction, located just north of Helen.

Like the Brasstown cabin, the Anna Ruby shop sits at the bottom of a half-mile paved trail that leads up to the falls, and it was run by the same volunteer group until 2005.

Whoever wins the Anna Ruby contract will be required to operate the entire facility, which includes responsibilities such as assisting visitors, providing security, cleaning the restrooms, mowing the grass and running interpretive programs such as guided hikes.

"(Anna Ruby) gets 200,000 visitors a year, so I think it’s a very attractive property," said Dave Jensen, chief ranger of the Chattooga River district. "We’re offering a five-year contract with an option for another five years, and we’ve had seven or eight requests for the prospectus."

The Forest Service had been trying to work out an arrangement with the adjacent Unicoi State Park, whose staff already has the expertise to operate the Anna Ruby facility. But Jensen said there were too many bureaucratic barriers between state and federal governments.

"Unicoi had some liability and indemnification restraints in state law that were not compatible with what we needed to do," he said.

But Jensen said some of the potential bidders have proven experience in outdoor recreation, and he’s confident they’ll find a company that can do the job well.

"Our goal is to have someone in place by spring," he said. "We’ve had many visitors comment that they would like to see the store open again."

Applications for the Anna Ruby contract will be accepted until Jan. 14.

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