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Parks may fall victim to cuts
State-run lodges could be outsourced
Some state-run lodges such as Smithgall Woods’ see demand drop off after the summer season.

HELEN — It has been tried before, but officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are talking about outsourcing some lodge operations as a part of the proposed cuts to their state budget.

Privatization of some state facilities was tried in the 1990s during the administration of Gov. Zell Miller. In some cases, it has worked. Lake Lanier Islands, Stone Mountain Park and Brasstown Valley Resort have operated for more than a decade under the management of private companies and continue to generate income for the state.

Others such as the Amicalola Falls State Park lodge came under private management and are now back in state hands after private operations failed to make a profit.

The State Board of Natural Resources approved a sweeping plan that will include closing and limiting hours at some state parks.

Also included in the proposal is outsourcing of the lodges at Smithgall Woods in Helen, Georgia Veterans State Park in Cordele, George T. Bagby State Park in Georgetown and Little Ocmulgee State Park in McRae.

"It’s a tough, tough call as to what happens," said James A. "Jim" Walters, a Gainesville civic leader who serves on the natural resources board. "We’re getting feedback from every city and county in the state that closing parks is not an option."

The Smithgall Woods lodge has attracted many private meetings of some of the state’s major corporate citizens. But like many mountain resorts, it has a winter season that brings fewer overnight visitors.

The only state-operated lodge that is profitable is Unicoi, also near Helen, made only a few thousand dollars last budget year.

The lodges in the southern portion of the state were built as a political trade-off for the mountain facilities with the idea that their construction would drive tourists to areas of the state in need of an economic boost.

The state estimates outsourcing the Bagby and Ocmulgee lodges would save the state $100,000 this year.

Outsourcing Smithgall and Georgia Veterans would save an additional $250,000. An administrative office that oversees the lodges would also close, saving $150,000, for a total savings of $500,000 from the lodges alone.

Walters said that shuttering a state park is not a popular option. He said one proposal calls for limiting park hours by as many as four or five days a week, opening only on weekends.

"It’s a matter of dollars and cents when you don’t have the money," Walters said.

Walters has his doubts about the privatization plans.

"Most of those guys (private lodge operators) want a certain number of dollars to operate them," he said. "If the revenues are there to pay them, fine. If it’s not, they expect to be paid anyway. That’s an option you have to be careful with. You can’t expect someone to come in and run these things without having a guaranteed income."

The Smithgall Woods outsourcing would not take place in the current budget year, unless the agency has to implement budget cuts of 8 percent, the second stage being proposed. However, the outsourcing is proposed at every level of the 2010 cuts.