While the assessment might have stung momentarily, park officials shook it off and drafted a plan for adding pizzazz, the man in charge of those plans told the Natural Resources Board Tuesday.
“The business-management part of this process has altered our DNA,” said Paul Nelson, assistant director of parks, recreation and historic sites for the Department of Natural Resources.
The goal is to generate money to replace the 43 percent of annual appropriations cut by the legislature. It’s some of the deepest cuts of any state agency because lawmakers felt park users should be paying their own way.
Nelson’s mission is for each facility to generate at least 75 percent of what it takes to operate. Parks that have lodges already average 91 percent, and the seven golf courses average 71 percent. A few parks even generate a profit, such as Vogel State Park, which brings in 139 percent of its costs.
But not all parks have lodges, and some brought into the park system primarily for conservation don’t even have many campsites, such as Panola Mountain State Park, which generates just 12 percent of its annual budget.
As the DNR cuts the ribbon Friday on its first new park in 18 years at the Chattahoochee Bend State Park near Newnan, the agency needs $120 million in repairs to all its facilities. Plus, much of its strategy for self-funding requires construction of new lodges, camp stores and gift shops that will take more money to build.
One way of getting cash is to sell sponsorships. Another is a proposed revolving-loan fund like the University System of Georgia uses to build dorms and parking garages.
The first step was training park rangers to think more like people in the hospitality business who watch the money closer and initiate on-site entertainment that will bring people for multiple visits. They’ve drafted proposals for each park, and a series of public hearings will allow hikers, campers, fishing enthusiasts and other park users to offer their input.
“There’s going to be very significant changes in the management of the parks, and we want everyone on board,” Nelson said.
One segment of the public is already on board, at least with the broad concept. The Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites that funded the consultants is hopeful, according to its executive director Andy Fleming.
“I think it really is a positive impact,” he said.
Asked if the increased fees or corporate sponsorships would commercialize the parks, Fleming said no.
“Sure, we’ll end up paying a little bit more for some of the activities, but to not adjust to the realities at this time would be wrong,” he said. “... Nothing that I’ve seen has suggested changing to an overly commercial orientation.”
Phyllis Johnson, a member of the Natural Resources Board from Hazlehurst, applauded the park division for its new approach.
“I just think it’s remarkable not to just take a reactionary response that we don’t have enough money,’” she said.
The division has already stepped up its marketing. It recently launched a loyalty club for recreational-vehicle owners where they can earn a free stay after renting a campsite for a minimum number of nights. And it has developed a geocaching game for the parks and historic sites where hikers with GPS devices can follow a scavenger hunt.
“Everyone on our team has bought into this,” said Becky Kelley, director of the parks division. “We all see it as a way to sustain these parks that we love for generations long after we’re gone.”