State gives up lodge management of mountain parks

Unicoi State Park

ATLANTA -- Visitors to see the fall leaves at two of Georgia’s most popular state parks will find the lodging there under the operation of a private contractor next autumn under a proposal approved Wednesday by the Board of Natural Resources.

Unicoi State Park near Helen will be managed by Coral Hospitality, starting Nov. 1, and the company takes the reins of Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville the next month as part of the board’s strategy for making state parks generate enough money to cover their own costs. Unicoi and Amicalola are among the most popular of the state’s 64 parks and historic sites, and the goal is to maximize their potential as a way to subsidize some of the others.

Coral Hospitality, based in Naples, Fla., manages upscale resorts, hotels and country clubs in Florida. It was selected because it has managed the board’s Brasstown Valley and Lake Blackshear resorts since 2005.

“We think they’ve completely earned the opportunity,” said Bill Donohue, executive director of the North Georgia Mountains Authority, which governs the parks.

Profits, revenues and customer satisfaction have all risen at Coral’s two other state parks, Donohue said.

Unicoi and Amicalola Falls used to generate profits that provided cash for the operations of other parks, but last year they essentially broke even. Since the General Assembly has cut appropriations to the Department of Natural Resources by 40 percent since the last recession, state officials see maximizing the potential of the most popular parks as critical.

The Legislature has approved the use of bonds and the authority’s reserves to fund $9.7 million in renovations of the 156 guest rooms, 44 cottages and the restaurants at the two North Georgia parks. Planning begins in December with some minor upgrades in the following months, but the major renovations will occur from August through April 2014.

Donohue estimates that the two parks would generate a combined annual surplus of $700,000 by fiscal year 2015 with only a $10-per-night increase in room rates.

Becky Kelley, director of DNR’s state parks, recreation & historic sites, told the Natural Resources Board that her goal was to be self-sustaining in three years.

The board will vote next month on Coral Hospitality’s contract extension. However, board members were positive in their comments.

“This plan’s really been well thought out,” said board member Steven R. Woodruff.

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