ATLANTA — Five Georgia state parks will be soon be completely managed by private, for-profit firms.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Florida-based Coral Hospitality will manage the properties.
The state will still own the parks, which are now run by the Department of Natural Resources. But the new setup may involve fees for access and services that are now free. Other commercialized services could be added, such as carts selling cold water along hiking trails. The company hasn’t announced immediate plans.
For the employees of the affected parks, it means no longer being classified as state employees, likely with more meager benefits from the private-sector firm.
Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville leads the list of privatized properties. It attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year to an 829-acre forest and the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River.
The other parks are North Georgia’s Unicoi, George T. Bagby in Fort Gaines, Little Ocmulgee in Helena and Georgia Veterans in Cordele, where a state-owned resort and golf club was already privately managed.
State officials say the move is a financial necessity after multiple rounds of layoffs and a hiring freeze. The park system has lost nearly half of its state taxpayer money over several years of tight budgets.
“Our toolbox is limited to really make these facilities thrive,” said Georgia state parks director Becky Kelley.
The budget cuts are a national trend. Besides the personnel cuts, Kelley has imposed reductions in operating hours. She’s managed to avoid closing sites completely as many states have done.
Now, she said, it’s time for “testing new models and trying new partnerships.”
Coral Hospitality CEO Lee Weeks said the company’s goal is reduce losses, create profits where possible and be good stewards.
“The promise isn’t necessarily we’re going to turn them into gold,” he said. “The change for the public should be little or nothing. All of the things that took place before will be evaluated, and we will work to make it better or, at least, comparable.”
Coral Hospitality had already taken over lodge operations at Amicalola and Unicoi. The firm also has operated Lake Blackshear Retreat and, since 2005, Golf Club at Georgia Veterans State Park since 2003 and the Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris.