Last year’s closure of a state-operated therapeutic camp for children has the Georgia Department of Natural Resources with a new piece of prime North Georgia property, but no clear idea yet of what to do with it.
“It’s beautiful,” DNR Region 1 Park Manager Joe Yeager said of the former site of the Appalachian Wilderness Camp, also known as the Outdoor Therapeutic Program. “It’s 1,028 acres in White County, it’s got a 47-acre lake. No doubt it’s a very valuable piece of land that I’m sure investors or others would really love to have.”
Last week officials held an informal public meeting at Unicoi State Park to discuss the future of the camp, which was transferred from the ownership of the Department of Human Services to the DNR last month.
About 70 people, including several former OTP employees who lost their jobs when the camp closed in December, gave their input.
“The local neighbors wanted recreational areas, the former OTP employees wanted some type of children’s camp brought back,” Yeager said. “A number of people spoke about bicycle trails.”
What no one did, however, is offer funding sources for any of their ideas. The DNR has shouldered the same cuts as other Georgia agencies and doesn’t have the staff to take on a new park. The location also is close to Unicoi and Smithgall Woods, two established state parks.
“I’m not going to say anything’s impossible, but we don’t have any leads on funding for how we could possibly run a state park here in our current budget status,” Yeager said.
Agency officials are not ruling out opening up the property for competitive bidding for a “concessionaire,” or private operator contract.
Yeager stressed that if the DNR goes that route with the property, “we would keep things in the mindset of our mission.
“We’re not going to open it up to somebody who’s not going to protect the resources,” he said.
The site’s layout best lends itself to its intended and most recent use — a camp for children. The dining hall is fairly new, and the administration and school facilities are still in good shape, Yeager said.
The OTP was closed last year after running an operating deficit of $1.2 million.
Yeager said he has submitted the suggestions made at the meeting to his superiors in the agency.
“A lot of ideas that were expressed were kind of wishful, but that we didn’t have any funding for,” he said. “But it was good to take the pulse of everyone and give them a chance to speak. This was the first step in gathering ideas.”