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Private company to operate five state parks
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Two major changes are coming to Georgias state parks system as the Department of Natural Resources reorganizes its operations.

As of July 1, all of the states lodge parks including Amicalola Falls and Unicoi will be entirely under the management of a private company, Florida-based Coral Hospitality.

Last fall, the DNR board put Coral in charge of the lodges and cabins at Amicalola and Unicoi, but both parks retained a small staff of DNR employees to run the campgrounds and conduct activity programs.

But as of July 1, Coral will take over those functions as well.

At Amicalola, three full-time and 7 part-time positions are being eliminated, according to Becky Kelly, Georgia State Parks director.

"We have given staff notification that as of June 30 their positions with the state will be eliminated," she said. "NGMA (North Georgia Mountains Authority) and Coral Hospitality will be interviewing our staff over the next few weeks and determining the staffing structure as of July 1 going forward . . . Hopefully, there will be a lot of familiar faces."

Kelly added two of Amicalola's employees were offered transfers to other positions within the parks divisions.

In addition to assuming management of all facilities at Amicalola and Unicoi, Coral will take over the entire operation of Little Ocmulgee State Park and Wallace Adams Golf Course, Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park and Golf Course, and George T. Bagby State Parks and Meadowlinks Golf Course.

Homer Bryson, deputy DNR commissioner, said it made sense to assign all five of the lodge parks to Coral, because of the companys expertise in hotel management.

But we dont anticipate turning over any of our non-lodge parks to Coral, he said. Theyre assuming management of those five lodge parks because it was redundant to have two management staffs.

Overall, the restructuring will eliminate 141 DNR positions, but Bryson said 98 percent of the affected employees will be offered comparable jobs with Coral.

In cases where there is no suitable position available with Coral, employees can choose to retire from DNR or request to be transferred to a non-lodge park.

Weve got vacancies at other parks around the state, including at the brand-new Don Carter State Park (on Lake Lanier in Hall County), Bryson said.

Despite the personnel changes, Georgia State Parks director Becky Kelley said visitors to Unicoi and Amicalola should expect to see the same educational programs, guided hikes and other family-friendly events.

We will sustain the programming, and we have communicated that to Coral, she said.

The DNR aims to save money by broadening Corals role, though Kelley said she did not have an estimate of what the cost savings might be.

Were hoping that unified management will achieve greater efficiency, she said.

To expand Corals jurisdiction over all of the lodge parks, the DNR has amended an existing contract the state has with Coral to manage Brasstown Valley Resort.

The DNR will continue to be the landlord (of the five parks), Kelley said.

But if DNR is the landlord, another agency, the North Georgia Mountains Authority, could be considered the boss. The authority, which was involved in the development of Brasstown, is separate from the DNR and oversees private concessionaires such as Coral.

Bill Donohue, executive director of the North Georgia Mountains Authority, said his agency is also in charge of upcoming renovations at Unicoi and Amicalola, which will still go forward despite the management changes.

You should see renovations starting in the fall, Donohue said. The design has been greenlighted, and weve allocated about $5 million each at Unicoi and Amicalola.

Bryson said things have been going extremely well since Coral took over those two lodges late last year.

We have already seen an uptick in revenues at Unicoi and Amicalola, and we expect to see more of that with the other lodge parks, he said.

Bryson attributed the higher revenue to both an increase in visitation and cost-cutting measures.

Besides the management change at the lodge parks, the DNR has been seeking efficiencies in other areas.

Weve been streamlining and consolidating operations for several years, as we focus on our core mission, Bryson said.

On July 1, Georgias state parks will begin phasing out their law-enforcement rangers. Instead, the DNR is creating a new Law Enforcement Division, which will train and manage rangers throughout all of the agencys divisions.

This change will affect all of the state parks, but most visitors will notice no difference. Contrary to some reports that appeared in the media last week, the park rangers will still be DNR employees, and local sheriffs offices will not be expected to provide law-enforcement services in the parks.

Our commitment to our properties is not going to change, Bryson said. This does not reduce the number of personnel at the parks or impact their budget.

He explained that the DNR has law-enforcement officers in five different divisions, each with its own rules

You need to have a standardized set of operations, he said.

The consolidation of law enforcement into one division is expected to take place gradually over a five-year period, to minimize the impact to current DNR employees. Eventually, all officers will be managed under the same rules for hiring, training and supervision.

The total number of law-enforcement employees will be the same, Bryson said. This is not a cost-saving measure.

He said the DNR currently has about 200 full-time officers, commonly referred to as game wardens, and about 130 part-time deputy conservation rangers.

Kimberly Boim contributed to this report.