Amerson Water Works Park in Macon is about to receive a face-lift using funds from a congressional earmark that dates back to Jim Marshall’s tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most of the design and engineering work for new trails, roads, restrooms and picnic shelters has been finished, said Mike Ford, CEO of NewTown Macon, a nonprofit downtown booster organization that operates the park. Once the Georgia Department of Transportation and other government agencies approve the plans, construction on the $6 million project could begin by late fall.
But those improvements could mean closing the popular park for about a year. Ford said NewTown’s design and engineering firm has recommended shutting the park completely during construction.
“But we haven’t agreed to that, and we’re the ones that get to make the decision,” Ford said. “We think that’s a long time to be closed.”
NewTown has already heard more complaints than its leaders expected about its decision to close the park on weekdays starting a few weeks ago, he said. It plans to open the park gates only on weekends until spring, although Ford noted that visitors are still allowed to park outside the gates and walk in.
Nim Long, landscape architect for the park improvements, said the project will include a variety of features.
The upstream overlook, where visitors can scramble down a steep bank to a popular rocky curve in the river, will become a focal point. Stone steps will be put in to make hiking easier and to reduce erosion. New picnic shelters, plus an additional parking lot, will be added at this overlook. The new parking area will be recessed and difficult to see from the overlook.
Many existing trails will be paved as part of the project, creating three loops: one shorter path around the “great lawn” above the playground, a loop that roughly follows the river and another that loops a large portion of the park and would eventually connect to the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail near the creek at the park’s southern edge. The trails around the park’s large pond will be crushed stone, and a boardwalk will be built to elevate the trail in areas around the pond that often flood, Long said.
The new road system, which will include an entrance roundabout and map to show the park’s various trails and activities, will better control where cars can drive in the park, Long said. It will offer a small loop that doesn’t exist now to allow car riders a glimpse of the river overlook. New parking areas will be added, not only at the overlook but at the tent-like riverfront pavilion, for a total of 75 to 80 parking spaces in the park, Long said. The open meadow at the entrance will be planted with some tree clusters and can also be used for event parking.
A new canoe and inner tube takeout will be built at the downstream edge of the park, allowing visitors to float about 1.8 miles from the existing canoe launch to the takeout, Long said.
Either as part of this set of improvements or in the next phase, mountain biking clubs may be invited to develop trails on the northern end of the park nearer to the existing canoe launch, and a Frisbee golf course could also be added.
Future phases of Water Works development envision a welcome center and a mini-amphitheater, but these aren’t funded as part of this project, Long said.
Water Works Park, which is larger than some state parks, was the location of the old Macon Water Authority water treatment plant before a historic 1994 flood submerged it. Before developing the plan for the park, NewTown held public meetings and invited public feedback about what features people wanted to see there.
Ford said the recent decision to close Water Works Park on weekdays during the winter was a money-saving measure.
NewTown was paying someone $700 a month to open and close the park gate daily and the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department $400 weekly to patrol the park periodically. (It is still paying the sheriff’s department $200 for this service on weekends.) A NewTown employee also patrolled the park now and then, although it is not his primary job to be a park ranger, Ford said.
No date has been decided for re-opening the park on weekdays, but “we weren’t sure we would get any complaints and we are, so it will be sooner rather than later,” perhaps in mid-February.
Park supporters and NewTown officials have voiced a need for a permanent ranger at the park, but Ford said funds still need to be raised for that.
“We think if we’ve invested $6 million, we have to have somebody there, preferably 24/7,” Ford said.
Ford said he foresees that when the major improvements to the park are complete, it will be open from dawn to dusk daily.
The improvements will be managed by NewTown with oversight by Mayor Robert Reichert, Macon businessman Chris Sheridan and Macon Water Authority Chairman Frank Amerson, for whom the park is named. A 25 percent local match was required, which NewTown is providing by paying for the design and engineering work, Ford said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.