published Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Georgia privatizing five state parks with upscale lodges and golf courses

Visitors descend a staircase at Amicalola Falls State Park between Ellijay and Dahlonega, Ga. The park is among five state parks in Georgia that will be privately managed beginning in August.
Visitors descend a staircase at Amicalola Falls State Park between Ellijay and Dahlonega, Ga. The park is among five state parks in Georgia that will be privately managed beginning in August.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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CHANGING PARKS

Coral Hospitality will operate the following Georgia state park “lodge parks” and golf courses:

• Amicalola Falls State Park between Ellijay and Dahlonega. It’s the site of the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and a 729-foot cascading waterfall, Georgia’s highest.

• Unicoi State Park, a 1,050-acre park in Northwest Georgia

• Little Ocmulgee State Park and Lodge and Wallace Adams Golf Course in Helen

• Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park and golf course south of Macon

• George T. Bagby State Park and Meadowlinks Golf Course south of Columbus

Poll
Should state parks be privatized?

Georgia is turning over management of five state parks with upscale lodges and golf courses to a private company — and 141 park employees are losing their state jobs and benefits.

Park employees, who learned Monday of the dismissals, should be able to reapply for their old jobs through Coral Hospitality, the Coral Gables, Fla., hotel and resort management company that will run the parks.

“Coral will restaff with hopefully as many of our people as they possibly can,” Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites Director Becky Kelley said.

Coral already took over management of the visitor lodges at Amicalola Falls State Park and Unicoi State Park in December, and Kelley said, “when we did that transition, Coral hired 98 percent of our employees.”

State officials hope that Coral can run the parks more efficiently and turn a profit.

“We know we can run a more efficient operation if we can reduce some of our costs through a third-party operator,” Kelley said.

Coral will get 3.25 percent of gross revenues from the parks it runs, said Bill Donohue, executive director of the North Georgia Mountains Authority, the arm of state government that is contracting with Coral to operate the parks.

The dining room at the lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park was losing money until Coral took it over and made changes such as replacing a nightly buffet with an a la carte menu, Donohue said.

“We were able to show a little profit,” he said.

Coral can realize other savings, he said. While the state gives employees 12 paid holidays, the private sector gives only five and pays less toward retirement, Donohue said.

Operations at Unicoi and Amicalola Falls state parks are break-even now, Donohue said, but he is hoping the two parks will show an annual return of $500,000 to $750,000 that can be reinvested in the state park system.

He said the state is planning to make $5 million in improvements to the 14 cabins, lodge and convention center at Amicalola Falls in the fall, which should help attract visitors.

News of the change didn’t go over well with employees at Amicalola Falls State Park, said Jim McMartin, who works at the park kiosk and takes the $5 entrance fee from visitors.

“They just sprung it on us yesterday,” McMartin said Tuesday. “Nobody thinks much of it.”

“They’re out of Naples, Fla.,” he said of Coral. “The money, whatever they make, is not going to stay in Georgia. It’s going to go out of state.”

Coral Hospitality’s Chief Executive Officer Lee Weeks couldn’t be reached for comment.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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