Georgia state parks get new lease on life

photo 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.

Georgia is outsourcing the management of five state parks with upscale lodges and golf courses to a private company - and it could be the best news in decades for visitors and supporters of Georgia's parks.

Despite what a few confused nature-lovers believe, the parks aren't being sold off and turned into condos, cul-de-sacs and Costcos. They are still protected property, preserved forever for all to use and enjoy.

The outsourcing plan simply allows a private company to manage the operations of a few of the state's less successful parks in order to correct flaws and increase efficiency, which will result in more visitors and a better guest experience.

Coral Hospitality, the Florida-based hotel and resort management company that state officials hired to manage the parks, will largely focus on improving state park functions and amenities that, frankly, the government should have never been providing in the first place.

Georgia bureaucrats have a history of operating golf courses, restaurants and lodging operations at state parks that drown in red ink, losing mounds of tax dollars every year. Coral Hospitality, on the other hand, has a proven track record of turning flagging hotels, resorts and golf clubs into successful facilities. They also have a strong incentive to improve the services at the state parks they manage: the company gets paid based on the money the parks generate -- a total of just 3.25 percent of gross revenues.

Coral took over management of the visitor lodges at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville and Unicoi State Park in White County last December. Already, improvements are clear. Bill Donohue, executive director of the North Georgia Mountains Authority, the arm of state government responsible for contracting with Coral to operate the parks, told Times Free Press reporter Tim Omarzu that the dining room at the lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park was a longtime money pit. After Coral took the facility over and made changes such as replacing a nightly buffet with an a la carte menu, the dining room began to turn a profit.

The state's agreement with Coral has produced other benefits, as well. For example, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources planned to close the Unicoi State Park lodge for long-term renovations. Coral, however, has devised a plan for upgrading guest rooms while keeping the lodges open, according to Leonard Gilroy of the Reason Foundation.

When Coral assumed management duties at Amicalola Falls and Unicoi, the company retained 98 percent of the parks' existing employees. That's good news for workers at Ocmulgee, Georgia Veterans Memorial and George T. Bagby state parks, the other three parks affected by the outsourcing plan.

Public-private partnerships like the one between the state parks and Coral Hospitality are nothing new. The U.S. Forest Service has benefited from a similar approach for more than 25 years. By contracting operations for services such as campgrounds and entrance fee collections to a private recreation management company, the Forest Service has retained full ownership of land, while pocketing about 90 percent of the money collected by the private operators and providing visitors with clean, well-maintained recreation areas at no cost to taxpayers, according to Gilroy. The Tennessee Valley Authority and a number of national and state parks employ similar arrangements with great success.

Lovers of Georgia's state parks should be thrilled that five previously failing state parks are getting a new lease on life. Not only are the parks now in the hands of professionals who know how to operate them successfully, the revenues the parks will now generate will go toward improving state parks. That means the decision to outsource the operations of a few parks will benefit Georgia's state parks and their visitors for years to come.