The recently signed Rural Tourism Protection Act helps Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites meet budget challenges and aids communities dependent on the tourism provided by the state’s parks, historic sites or outdoor recreation areas within their communities, according to state Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, who wrote the bill.
The act, which was House Bill 189, was signed May 7 by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Buckner said the act requires the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the park system, to notify cities and counties whose economies are connected with the park before closing it. The bill also requires the DNR to agree to transfer the operation-and-management responsibilities of a park slated for closure to local governments.
“I drafted this legislation in hopes of helping communities that depend on tourism for their local communities,” Buckner said. “(House Bill) 189 will be imperative in keeping the government accountable in sustaining the economy in rural parts of Georgia.”
State Parks Director Peggy Kelley said the bill makes official those solutions already worked out by the DNR and the parks system with local governments. She said she worked with Buckner regarding some help the park system needed with Roosevelt’s Little White House Historic Site and Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park, which are near her residence in Junction City.
“When we started going through the budget problems, we began talking to some communities about the challenges we were having operating and managing parks and historic sites located in their (city or county),” Kelley said. “This bill formalizes the solutions we came up with during those discussions.”
Kelley said several parks, historic sites and outdoor-recreation areas now are operated and managed by local authorities, including John Tanner Historic Site, operated by Carroll County, and the Lapham-Patterson House, operated by the Thomas County Historical Society. Operating hours of historic sites like Fort Morris near Sunbury and Fort King George near Darien also have been adjusted.
A comparison of the state parks’ website, www.gastateparks.org, with information printed from the website two years ago show the number of state parks, historic sites and outdoor-recreation areas has dropped from 63 to 56. Those parks no longer listed on the website are not closed but managed by local governments or other state agencies, Kelley said.
The website notes that each of the remaining parks now has a sustainable business-and-management plan that helps the park recover more operating expenses through earned revenues, local partnerships and programs. Fort Morris’ plan notes that its total operating budget for fiscal year 2010 was $71,979, but the site only earned $12,298 in total revenue.
The business-plan recommendations include enhancing local partnerships with the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and Liberty County Convention & Visitors Bureau to help support operations. The plan also calls for renovating the 1970s-era museum, conducting at least nine special events a year and installing a boardwalk overlook within the earthworks to enhance visitor experience and protect the earthworks.
“The more communities are aware of the challenges state parks are facing, the more they may be willing to support the parks located in their community,” Kelley said. “We are committed to keeping our parks open (for) Georgia families and the local communities they serve.”