Ocmulgee takes step to become national park

A proposal to turn the Ocmulgee National Monument into a national park took a big step Wednesday as a local authority committed money to the vision.

The Development Authority of Bibb County agreed to spend up to $50,000 as a cash match for a $150,000 federal economic development administration grant to pay for a boundary survey for the park. The $50,000 would only be spent if the authority wins the federal grant.

The survey would be the first step in receiving the national park designation, Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, said in his presentation to the authority.

A national monument is similar to a national park, but it receives less funding and has less protections for wildlife than national parks.

If the monument becomes a national park, the amount of property in the project would increase from about 700 acres to more than 2,000 acres, Cherry said.

“It would include the Lamar Mounds, which is the best example of a (American Indian) spiral mound in the United States,” he said. “These mounds are 800 to 900 years old.”

The Ocmulgee National Monument attracts about 175,000 visitors a year, Cherry said.

If some strategic investments are made in the park, the property is expanded and the interpretive nature of the park is enhanced, “we could push visitors to this particular facility up in the 1 million person range,” which would happen over a number of years, Cherry said.

“We can get 75 percent of this study done by the federal government,” said Kathy Bowden, the authority’s executive director. “It’s exciting to think we could enhance what we already have.”

The authority’s decision to seek the grant was encouraging news to Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“To have available some dollars to match federal dollars to get the boundary line (study) ... is a really positive first step for the Ocmulgee National Monument,” she said. “(The center’s employees) are not allowed to lobby for the park, so it’s really up to the citizenry and the leadership of Macon to go to bat for any enhancements.”

Cherry said the process of getting a national park designation would entail:

Ÿ Having the boundary study completed.

Ÿ Lobbying for money to build an interior road to get from the existing park to a new addition.

Ÿ Restoring the added land for an interpretive area.

Ÿ Creating another entrance to the park from Coliseum Drive, near the under-construction convention center hotel.

“This project is very feasible,” Cherry said.

Only three landowners would be involved in obtaining property where the expanded park would be located: One parcel is held in a land bank, a portion is owned by Cherokee Brick & Tile Co., and a private landowner has another portion, he said. Much of the land is in a flood plain.

The study will take about six months after the funding is released, which is expected to happen the first part of 2009, Cherry said. Then it will take the National Park Service between 30 and 60 days to award bids for the project.

“Hopefully by the third or fourth quarter of ’09, we would have the study,” and work would begin to secure funds for the project, Cherry said.

Various people have worked on getting the national park designation over a number of years, including the chamber for about three years, he said.

“It’s an asset here that we are not taking fully advantage of,” Cherry said.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.