A Shot In The Arm

By Dusty Fuller

Hard Labor Creek State Park is a popular destination approximately one hour east of Atlanta, Ga. The park features an 18-hole golf course, cabins, camping, horse stalls, multi-use trails, a lake with a swimming beach, and other recreational amenities. Annual visitation is more than 250,000, which includes overnight and day-use guests. During 2016, the park completed a major renovation of its campground, including adding sewer hookups and new shower facilities.

A 1979 map of the campground—carefully hand-sketched for copying purposes—showed 110 campsites in the same area that today holds 51. The sites were smaller, of course, due mostly to the camping demands of the day. By the 1980s and early 1990s, the professionally printed maps were showing fewer and larger campsites, and two comfort stations became four. A few RV pull-through sites appeared, though underneath a layer of soil and gravel they were still just two back-in sites. By the early 2000s, an asterisk here and there marked 50-amp electrical service at the camp host sites. Cable TV—all 13 channels of it—was at each site. Good enough was, well, good enough. 

Customers Want More
By 2015, there were big campsites, small campsites, sites near the water, and sites with a view. It was an average state-park camping experience for most visitors. The Hard Labor campground was considered serviceable and a decent place to spend the weekend. However, the age of the infrastructure was beginning to show. Most of the sites were limited to 30-amp electrical service, sewer hookups were practically non-existent, and the comfort stations were relics from decades past. Business was still good, mainly due to the park’s proximity to the population centers of Atlanta, Athens, and Augusta, but many customers wanted more for their money than they were receiving. Competition from other camping facilities was putting a spotlight on the areas where Hard Labor Creek wasn’t making the grade.

In response to this competition, and with the full realization that state parks were in the business of recreation, the decision was made to renovate. The goal was to modernize the entire campground; each and every site was to be basically made new—the comfort stations, water and electric service, gravel, borders, walkways, the works. However, as cost estimates developed, a project of that scope would prove to be more than the budgets would accommodate. Not all 51 sites could be completed, at one time. The project was condensed—the planning team reduced the breadth of the project and chose to focus on fixing the core customer issues: comfort stations, electrical service, and sewer hookups.

Digging In
These necessary improvements required that the entire campground be shut down for seven months, from January through the middle of July. Demolition was first—all four comfort stations, existing electrical equipment, concrete fixtures on campsites, and even the existing cable-TV system. This was followed by thousands of feet of water pipe and electrical wire, laid in trenches that seemed to have no end as they wound back and forth between the sites and through the pavement. Land was being leveled and graded, and two new comfort stations, significantly larger than their predecessors and complete with septic tanks and drain fields, took shape. Fifty-amp electrical service and cable TV was to be the norm instead of the exception, and frost-proof water spigots were installed to cut down on winter repairs. New picnic tables, grills, and lantern posts were ordered and placed on the sites, but the number of full-hookup sites was limited to 13. Most of the gravel was left in place, while many timbers were left unmoved; that work will come at another time.

By June, the project was substantially complete, and park staff prepared to open the new campground on schedule. There were certainly some loose ends to tie up, but nothing that would preclude the campground being open in time for July 4th weekend. 

The campground renovation has hummed along, roughly eight months out from the completion of the project. Those loose ends aren’t loose anymore, and guest responses have shown that it was an overall success. Repeat visitors who have camped at Hard Labor for years are excited that most of “their” issues were considered. New visitors have less perspective, obviously, but are still pleased with the facilities and infrastructure. They feel that they are being given more for their money, and that someone is making an effort to earn their business.

Have A Voice
Every project gives a manager a chance to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. One takeaway from the project is that it may have benefited from additional operational perspective. At the time the renovation began in January 2016, the manager position had been vacant for seven months, and would not be filled until April. The site staff is still addressing some functional/operational issues (namely ADA-site percentages, some electrical repairs, and site ergonomics) on the heels of a $3-million investment. There are a number of items that may have been done differently had someone with experience in operating a comparable facility had provided input throughout the planning and construction processes.

Organizations don’t always have to depend on having an experienced manager at each and every project. The input could come from “advisory committees” composed of individuals from various levels of the agency but revolving around a nucleus of field-staff members who have had their “hands on the plow,” so to speak. The core members—people who have seen the projects and managed the product—are those who will most likely know the length of a “standard” sewer hose, the specifications in place for site leveling, or that painting the walls white is a bad idea. Some things are not necessarily clear in the drawing room. It is in the planning phase where the lifespan of an investment can be extended simply by making changes in materials or methods. By thinking one year out, five years out, or even15 or 25 years out, field-staff members can certainly make a difference.

The renovation at Hard Labor Creek was a sorely needed shot in the arm, giving campers a facility that is worth their time and money. It also serves as a reminder that even good projects can be made better, and that managers have a significant role in making that happen. Serve as a resource for the project planning team, and the result will be better for the park, the staff members, and, most importantly, the guests.

Dusty Fuller is the Park Manager for Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge, Ga. Reach him at dustin.fuller@dnr.ga.gov. For more information on Hard Labor Creek, visit http://gastateparks.org/HardLaborCreek.