Thriving communities is greenspace. Parks give families places to explore together while enjoying exercise. They increase our quality of life as well as property values. Their natural habitat protects wildlife and our environment. They are also great economic engines, bringing tourist dollars to local businesses. Georgia’s State Parks and Historic Sites have an annual economic impact of $562 million and create more than 8,000 jobs.
When the entire state of Georgia is your backyard, how do you keep it maintained yet help it grow? This is an important question to be answered by the Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division (PRHS) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Faced with seismic budget reductions beginning in 2009, we found ourselves at a crossroads on how to accomplish this. We decided to band together, chart a course and lead the way out of the Great Recession and into a more promising future. I’m proud to say that Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites have not only survived, we are beginning to realize opportunities which may position our system to thrive.
After a budget cut of 39 percent in FY 2009, our goal was to reposition our system on a more sustainable path, relying far less on state appropriations. We implemented many difficult and innovative operational and service changes. At the same time, we launched an internal planning and management initiative that enabled us to better track true operational costs, determine the most important funding needs, engage the support of our surrounding communities, stakeholders and partners, and develop measures to evaluate our progress.
Since “people having fun” is core to our mission, we made significant financial investments in new accommodations and recreational amenities, resulting in increased revenue and visitation. Many parks now rent bicycles, kayaks, aquacycles and stand-up paddleboards. Hard Labor Creek has begun leading regular full-moon paddling programs. A few parks now boast archery ranges, and Panola Mountain offers archery classes – even the chance to take aim at a giant dinosaur!
This summer we opened our third splash pad where children can safely play in squirting water fountains. We also created fun clubs that encouraged exploration of parks all across the state. The Park Paddlers Club challenges guests to kayak at six state parks before earning a very special members-only t-shirt. Similar clubs encourage hiking and biking, and our geocaching program continues to grow. A partnership with the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association provides free “prescriptions” for a dog walk in the park, introducing a new audience to our trails. Additionally, we have contracted with local area businesses to provide fun adventures and excursions such as cave tours at Cloudland Canyon in the mountains and fishing charters at Crooked River on the coast.
State park visitors also enjoy new ways of turning day trips into longer close-to-home vacations. Lodge renovations have taken place at Unicoi and Amicalola Falls. Cottages at parks such as F. D. Roosevelt, Magnolia Springs and Fort Mountain have a fresh new décor and updated kitchens and bedrooms. New cottages and camper cabins have been added to several parks including Gordonia-Alatamaha, Fort Yargo, Laura Walker and Skidaway Island. I’m happy to announce that late this summer, a yurt village (our fifth) will be unveiled at Sweetwater Creek.
The Georgia State Park System was founded in 1931 with just two properties: Indian Springs and Vogel. Today it has grown to more than 60 sites that protect Georgia’s natural resources and cultural treasures and provide great ways for people to have fun outdoors and be enriched. I am very proud to say that through tough economic times, Georgia has maintained these great resources. In fact, three new sites have opened within the last few years and have already become assets to their surrounding communities: Don Carter State Park, Chattahoochee Bend State Park and Hardman Farm Historic Site.
A key to our repositioning success and our excitement about a positive future is our Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites non-profit support group. Almost every state park has a locally-based Friends group helping to connect their park to their community and helping our guests have a great time every visit. Since 2010, Friends has contributed more than $1.57 million in support of our state parks and historic sites system. Annually, we estimate that about 6,000 volunteers contribute more than 87,700 total service hours, valued at more than $1,950,000. This summer, Friends will unveil an exciting opportunity to engage local and statewide partners to create new exploratory and interactive natural play features at three state parks.
Our team at the Georgia State Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division has been nationally recognized for excellence in park and recreation management twice in the last eight years. Our transitional efforts these past few years have once again positioned us for possible Gold Medal honors. Thanks to the hard work of all who love and support Georgia’s great state parks, I believe we are well positioned to take home this recognition in September and give Georgia’s residents even more opportunity to say that they have the best state parks in the
Becky Kelley is Director of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division. Prior to DNR, she led the DeKalb County Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Department.