The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is moving to privatize lodge parks in the state, as part of fulfilling a state mandate to become, among other things, more self-sufficient.
But recent moves and ones taking place late last year have prompted outrage and concerns, particularly over how law enforcement will be handled.
“We’ve been working over the last four years to do lots of things on lots of fronts,” said Becky Kelley, director of the DNR’s State Parks & Historic Sites division.
A private company, Florida-based Coral Hospitality, contracted by the North Georgia Mountains Authority, has managed the lodge and cabins at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawson County since Dec. 1, and the lodge and cabins at Unicoi State Park near Helen in White County since Nov. 1, said Bill Donohue, the authority’s executive director.
By July 1, all the amenities at Georgia’s lodge parks — Unicoi and Amicalola in North Georgia and Little Ocmulgee, Georgia Veterans Memorial and George T. Bagby state parks in South Georgia — will be managed by the authority.
The authority will “in turn contract with Coral to run those facilities on our behalf,” Kelley said.
The move means that 141 state employees at the five parks will lose their jobs.
However, Kelley said, in the earlier transition to Amicalola and Unicoi, “the vast majority of those employees were interviewed and hired by Coral.”
“So, knowing that our goal is to create a seamless transition, Coral will be working with our existing team to build their new team ... over the next 30-60 days,” she said.
By July 1, “people will experience our parks and hopefully have no indication of anything changing,” Kelley said.
Donohue said “we’re trying to get those assets that are fairly unique within the state park system — lodges, restaurants, conference centers — and operate (them) under more of a destination overnight location.”
And it can be done by “people that that’s their full-time business ... (who are) better geared to operate, market, promote and price (accommodations),” he added.
A move to take certified rangers out of state parks has drawn worries from area officials.
“My concern is if you don’t have any law enforcement presence at Amicalola Falls all the time, then what’s that going to do to me, and our law enforcement agency here,” said Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle.
DNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson said the changes are a step to streamline operations at the state’s parks by consolidating services, which is intended to save money, improve customer relations and in the long term achieve self-sufficiency.
Carlisle said shifting the burden to counties to save money at the state level is troublesome.
“What’s going to happen is I’m going to have to turn around, go back to the county commissioners and have to request more officers. So it’s going to be an expense back to the county.”
Under the new structure, Bryson said DNR law enforcement officers would be available to respond to calls at the state parks and management areas in their region, which consists of a five-county zone.
“Right now we have law enforcement officers scattered over five sections, and there’s little to no coordination as to where they are deployed,” he said. “We have clusters of law enforcement officers across the state and some places we have none. We think there is a tremendous amount of efficiency this will bring.”
Carlisle said he called Bryson last week when he first heard talk of the changes.
“He assured me that this won’t be a problem for us or our department, but I think it could impact us a great deal,” he said. “My concern is there is so much visitor traffic at the park just about any time during the year, especially in the summer months and the fall season, there’s a lot of people up there. Someone is going to have to make sure they are being safe.”
White County Sheriff Neal Walden shared the same concerns.
“It’s certainly going to impact the (local law enforcement),” he said. “It just seems like we’re getting more and more put back on us at the local level.”
His department not only has area residents to watch over, but the stream of tourists during the summer and fall leaf-watching seasons.
“We probably police some 2«-3 million people up here a year,” Walden said.
Bill Tanner, a retired state park superintendent, opposes the privatization moves, which he said he believes are being driven by the bottom line.
“Taking a park ranger out of a state park is like taking Mickey away from Disney, although Disney is what these parks will be turning into, I’m afraid,” he said.
Dawson County Emergency Services Director Billy Thurmond said the assistance of certified rangers at Amicalola Falls has been vital in numerous emergency calls at the park, where the closest manned fire station is on Hubbard Road, outside Big Canoe, nearly 10 miles away.
“On every occasion they get to the patient or the injured person a good bit of time before we actually get there, and a lot of times, they’ve already brought them back down to a good place for us to meet them, either halfway up the falls area or all the way back down at the reflection pond,” he said. “It’s absolutely helpful to have them up there.”
Thurmond said his office has not been in contact with anyone from Coral Hospitality, though he anticipates conversations to take place leading up to July 1.
“At this point, I haven’t talked to anyone in the new management division to hear what they’re going to be doing, what their skill level is going to be, how they’re going to handle anything,” he said. “We’ll be going up there trying to find out about this new company and what (its) capabilities are, but we haven’t done that yet.”
The new strategy to streamline DNR’s law enforcement, according to Bryson, is based on a similar model used in 2010 that consolidated the wildlife resources division.
“That transition has been very successful and we believe we’ll see similar success with the new changes,” he said.