Chehaw's future is uncertain - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Chehaw's future is uncertain

June 15, 2006 

Albany-- The city of Albany helps finance the park but that money will run out soon and city leaders hope the park will be able to stand on it's own.          

The Rowley family is new to South Georgia.  They came from California but they found a nice change here in smaller Albany. "We like it," says Patty Rowley, "slower pace." They've only been here since May but they're packing up in the van from what has already been their third trip to Chehaw Park.  Patty Rowley loves the greenery.

"The setting is real natural with all the trees and it's just the right size, not overwhelming for the kids," says Rowley. 8-year-old Katelyn loves another aspect of the park. "I really like all the animals.  The baby bear, the turtles, lizards," says Katelyn.

But keeping people like the Rowley family interested and coming back to parks like Chehaw is a major challenge. "People get that idea in their minds that oh we were there at Chehaw last year, we've already seen it," says Executive Director Doug Porter. Last year, about 80,000 visitors entered Chehaw's gates.  Admission costs are one of many things that the park depends on for revenue.  Executive Director Doug Porter says revenue isn't where he'd like it to be.

"Each year, we come very close to breaking even and some years we don't make it and some years we do," says Porter. And it's questionable whether the park would be able to make it at all without city help.  It takes 1.5 million dollars to run the park each year.  The city of Albany has a management agreement with Chehaw and puts forth a little over a million dollars each year but that agreement ends in 2009.

"Chehaw park for the past several years has been kind of a financial drain on the city budget at the tune of atleast a million dollars per year. What I would love to see is for us to get out there and produce some activities that will reduce the amount of money that the city has to subsidize," says Mayor Willie Adams.

Along with less city dependance, Mayor Adams says he'd love to see more attendance and activities.  It's a challenge that Chehaw has three years to accomplish so they've come up with a master plan, something that's never been done before. "The whole 750 acres has never really been mapped out and planned," says Porter.

A board on Porter's office wall outlines plans for several projects using SPLOST five money.  Plans include developing a new camping space near the Muckalee Creek so people can camp closer to the water, an ampitheater, a botanical garden and even some kind of water activity for kids like a fountain or spray area. "We know the park needs to be more attractive to people. There needs to be a lot for people to see and do when they come to the park," says Porter.

But even with all those new changes, the question still remains if Chehaw can stand on it's own without the city's help.  There is some doubt. "I don't know that it's really reasonable to think that this park is going to be totally self-supporting," says Porter.

The park's goal is to ween itself from the city's budget so that such a big portion of their support doesn't come from them but Porter still wants diversified support from Albany and other governments. "That's my goal for when we get to 2009 is to have some kind of partnership developed between Lee County, Dougherty County and albany to support this park in the future because this is a community resource," says Porter.

Although it'll be a long road, the park wants the city and counties to see that it's a good place for tax dollars to go and that Chehaw is a good, sound investment. "We value Chehaw an awful lot here in albany and looking forward to the progress being made," says City Manager Alfred Lott.

"Frankly speaking, I'm somewhat excited about what might come out of this," says Mayor Adams.

Chehaw will work hard over the next couple of years to make the necessary changes to keep visitors interested.  It already has some new fans. "I just enjoy it the way it is," says Rowley. As it stands, it will take more people finding the value in Chehaw to increase revenue and decrease their support from city finances.

Worst case scenario is if Albany, Dougherty and Lee Counties step up to help in 2009, the park would have to look very closely at how they operate.  That would trim expenses, cut back on services and ultimately lead to a dramatic price increase at the park.  

Chehaw also opened its own bank account to receive revenue from the park itself and pay its own bills so managers can keep a closer eye on income and spending.

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