The expected and much-touted renovations have yet to happen at two Northeast Georgia state parks and lodges after a private company took over operations in 2012.
“We’ve had mixed results,” said Bill Donohue, executive director of the North Georgia Mountains Authority, a state agency operating under the Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had some good things that have gone well. We’ve been able to improve some of the special events. ... And then there’s some areas where we thought we’d have better improvement, (but) it hasn’t worked out exactly how we thought it would in our forecast.”
The Florida-based Coral Hospitality has managed the lodge and cabins at Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge in Dawson County since December 2012, and the lodge and cabins at Unicoi State Park & Lodge near Helen in White County since November 2012. The business has handled all amenities at the parks since July 2013.
According to a 2012 report in The Times, renovations to the two lodges were scheduled to be completed by this April, but work on those changes has yet to begin.
The Unicoi Lodge is struggling the most.
“The physical property really needs that renovation badly,” Donohue said. “If you’ll recall, the state had basically announced that they were going to close Unicoi to renovate it. And, a) we didn’t close it, and b) we didn’t renovate it, so the public or the groups that generally go to Unicoi Lodge are very much waiting for us.”
Coral Hospitality took over lodge operations after the state planned to close it. Leaders within Coral Hospitality decided it was better to bring in some revenue and leave the lodge open regardless of the state of renovations.
Coral Hospitality Regional Manager Charles Burton said he doesn’t have exact numbers but usage numbers at Unicoi are down. He said the goal is for the property to bring in more than $1.5 million.
“If we brought in (that amount) in revenue, we would not lose any money,” he said. “We would cover all of our expenses.”
He does expect Unicoi to “break even” when the fiscal year ends June 30.
As for Amicalola, projections are for it to bring in a profit of around $200,000 with an estimated revenue of $3 million.
“Amicalola lost a little bit of money the year before we took over,” Burton said. “It’ll be a good turn for us. The majority of our bigger months are to come. ... We still think we’re going to get that nice spring and summer lift to get us to where we can break even (at Unicoi) as we start the renovations.”
He said Amicalola Lodge’s occupancy rate prior to the takeover was around 60 percent. There’s been a modest increase in occupancy of around 1.5 percent this past year.
Looking at October, the parks’ busiest month, revenues for both lodges were slightly down. Amicalola brought in $507,000 in 2012, compared to $481,000 in 2013, a $26,000 difference.
Unicoi saw a $57,000 difference, from $506,000 revenue in October 2012 to $449,000 in the same month of 2013.
“In the summer, we got a lot of rain,” Burton said. “It seemed like it played a bigger impact on the fall. We didn’t see to have as long of a fall, though we were still busy during that peak time. ... But it was relatively close, year over year, as far as revenue.”
Other than the renovations, or lack thereof, lodge guests and park visitors shouldn’t have noticed too much change with the switchover to private management. Burton said many of the programs, like bird watching and craft shows, have been retained, and special holiday programs remain popular.
“Both properties used to not offer food and beverage on Christmas and New Year’s,” he said. “Amicalola offered a New Year’s gala but they didn’t really do the holiday buffets, which are pretty popular at other resorts and properties that we manage in the state. So we started doing a Christmas buffet, Thanksgiving buffet and New Year’s galas, and they’ve been well received and they’re growing.”
Coral Hospitality has operated Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris since 2005. It also took over amenities at Little Ocmulgee, Georgia Veterans Memorial and George T. Bagby state parks in South Georgia in 2013.
Both Donohue and Burton believe once the lodging renovations are complete attendance numbers will go up, especially at Unicoi. Donohue said the changes, with a $7 million budget, should really get going in the spring and early summer months, from March through June.
Burton called the last year a learning experience as the management company worked on programming, deep cleaning and staffing standards in becoming familiar with their new properties.
“We remain very excited and optimistic and pleased we have this opportunity,” Burton said. “I get all kinds of positive feedback from guests about our staff and the locations and the natural resources and the facilities, even though they need to be updated.
“We’re looking forward to that, because we know that’s going to be the boost that’s going to really create a nice lift at both properties.”