"We are very excited," said Damon Kirkpatrick, president of the about 1,200-member Friends of Red Top and manager of chapter services for Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites. "We've worked with the DNR for the past few months on trying to make some use out of the facility that's there, the vacant facility. We're very happy to announce that we're going to be converting what used to be the restaurant into a new Discovery Room with hands-on interpretive exhibits and trail information and live animal exhibits.
"We're shooting for early February for a grand opening. It will probably be open for the public sometime this winter but we'll have a grand opening celebration probably the first week of February."
Citing budget reasons, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources deemed it was not financially feasible to keep Red Top's lodge, which included 33 guest rooms, a restaurant and three conference rooms, open. Shortly after the May announcement, James Hamilton, lodge region manager for Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, told The Daily Tribune News the DNR estimated the lodge would "lose $278,000 this year and about $217,000 next year."
The state legislature's directive to make the lodge profitable or self-sustaining was made in May 2009 as the DNR revealed its restructuring plan for its 48 state parks and 15 historic sites. It was implemented to combat a 24 percent forecasted loss of revenue and about a 39 percent decrease in state appropriations. Along with looking into the privatization of lodges and golf courses, other reorganization steps included cutting 12 percent of the system's labor force and utilizing furloughs one day each month, diminishing the services at five state parks and reducing operations at 12 historic sites.
While the DNR did look into privatizing Red Top's lodge, it was determined that it also would not be a feasible solution.
"Friends of Red Top, when the lodge was closed some of our big concerns were that area has always been the heartbeat of the park," Kirkpatrick said. "And since the closure of that facility, it's just starting to look vacant, for lack of a better word. The retail area has slowed down. There's not nearly as much traffic coming through that area as there used to be. Even though people are still using the trails behind the lodge and visiting the cabin behind the lodge, the lodge building itself just looks closed.
"So what we're hoping to do is, number one, provide a new and exciting opportunity for families to come and learn and play and do. We're going to try to do everything with hands-on exhibits so that kids can come in and touch and feel. But number two, add some life back to that building, just trying to restore it to what it used to be. No, it won't be a restaurant. No, it won't have overnight accommodations but we think we can add something to the guest experience by creating this."
To help the Discovery Room get under way, the new offering received $5,000 from Friends of Red Top and $5,000 from a grant secured by Friends of Georgia State Parks.
"I'm hoping it will continue to bring folks [to] the area of the park office," said Red Top Park Manager Kelvin Richey, adding the staff's offices are now being housed in the former lodge building, with public access offered Monday through Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and later for special events. "Also [it will provide a venue] to talk about the history of the park, and just to offer the ability for folks that just want to sit and bird watch and things like that. So initially when Damon first approached me with it, I thought it was a great idea, just adding something back to that building."
Kirkpatrick's official announcement about the Discovery Room was delivered on Saturday in the midst of Save My State Parks Day.
Red Top patrons were invited to meet at the park office -- 50 Lodge Road in Cartersville -- to tackle numerous projects from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Designed for all ages and skill levels, the tasks included cleaning up trails and assembling picnic tables at the park office parking lot. At Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site, the needs ranged from weeding the American Indian garden and painting picnic tables to laying mulch on walking trails from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Organized by the Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, the volunteer activities were presented during a statewide celebration of National Public Lands Day in which visitors were admitted free of charge to all state parks and historic sites.
"The key word [here] is stewardship," Kirkpatrick said, referring to the goal of Save My State Parks Day. "We want people to realize and remember that these parks are theirs and that they need a little help right now. So we're hoping to get people introduced to the idea of volunteering and helping out but more than anything just learn what's there so they can take advantage of it."