More than two years after a fire substantially damaged the "hub of the park," Red Top Mountain State Park officials are overjoyed to learn about the structure's future.
"We always hoped something good would come out of this and indeed it is going to,” said Damon Kirkpatrick, director of operations and development for Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites and board member for Red Top’s Friends organization. “When I first heard about the initial plans to replace the building, of course I was very excited.
"In speaking with the [Georgia Department of Natural Resources], it sounded like they really wanted to make something great out of this tragedy. But now, to see the demolition equipment on-site ... is fantastic. We can't wait to see the progress and to help in any way we can."
Receiving the call at 3:24 p.m. June 19, 2016, five stations from the Bartow County Fire Department responded to the scene — 50 Lodge Road S.E. in Acworth — that already was marked by heavy fire and smoke. According to Georgia DNR reports, construction is tentatively set to begin on the old park office building at the end of 2018 and will last about one year.
"After the fire, there was some structural damage to the right side of the building and a great deal of water damage from the fire being put out,” said Kelly Howington, Red Top’s park manager. “DNR leadership decided that the best option was to start from the ground up and create something that better meets today's needs for the large number of day users that visit this area of the park.
"… The entire structure, hotel, conference building and pool will be completely removed to make way for the new office/interpretive center that will replace it. From the conceptual drawings we have seen at the park level, the new building will be a bit smaller than the old conference building but contain well-designed retail, administrative and interpretive spaces for our park guests."
He continued, "Financially, we have really kept up revenue nicely despite the absence of this structure, however, for safety concerns it has meant that the Friends of Red Top Mountain State Park had to put the bluegrass music series on hold. Park rangers and friends are a very creative and resilient group of people though, and it really hasn’t slowed us down much on our Junior Ranger programs, school groups or Iron Pours. We look forward to the new building, because it will [provide] the desperately needed bathroom facilities and indoor hub to the entire Vaughan Log Cabin area that really helps the whole space flow in harmony and enables the high level of customer service we strive for each day."
Calling the fire "devastating," Kirkpatrick — who was president of Red Top’s Friends organization at the time — shared he and his fellow members were on hand to provide immediate support in the recovery efforts.
“I was at home enjoying Father's Day when I got the call from the park region office," Kirkpatrick said about the fire. "Friends of Red Top was on-site the very next day to assess the damage and to determine the best way to help. After ensuring all our educational animals were rehoused safely, we moved toward helping to restore park operations by adding portable restroom facilities, helping move park staff into a temporary office and just generally making sure our programming season could move forward.
"It was a tough summer and proved to be a bit much for many of our popular programs. The old building had really become the hub of the park and losing it had ramifications well beyond what we expected. But now, to see the possibilities — a new Discovery Room, learning and interpretive areas, a building to match the style of that area, etc. — is really exciting, and we can't wait for construction to start."
Echoing Kirkpatrick's comments, Debora Tucker — secretary of the Friends of Red Top's board of directors — was ecstatic to hear about the facility's future plans. Like other Friends members, the Acworth resident has provided needed support for the park's programming during this time of transition.
"The fire and subsequent closure of the facility has resulted in many challenges for the Friends group and our ability to support park programs," Tucker said. "First and foremost, however, we all remain so thankful that no humans nor any of the Discovery Room animal residents were harmed. Some programs, like the very popular Saturday evening bluegrass concerts, had to be canceled since there was no longer a place to which to retreat in case of rain. The Discovery Room, which had been a Friends project, had so many educational stations. The animal exhibits and a place to hold lecture-oriented programs was gone with no viable facility to take its place.
"… We've persevered, however, and have still supported park events like Spring at the Homestead, Iron Pours, various nature hikes, etc. We do look forward to helping perhaps expand park programs once the new facility is ready. We believe there will be so many more opportunities. In the interim, we are working with park staff to assess and manage each event on a case-by-case basis so that we can make the best decisions for park visitors. We are keeping the safety of visitors top of mind in the area around the construction site."