Why didn’t Sandy Beach Water Park open this summer? Macon-Bibb puts owner on notice.

Parking fee change makes Lake Tobesofkee attractions more affordable

Parking changes may make Lake Tobesofkee attractions more affordable. Sandy Beach Water Park manager says traffic is up.
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Parking changes may make Lake Tobesofkee attractions more affordable. Sandy Beach Water Park manager says traffic is up.

Sandy Beach Water Park never opened in 2019 for what would have marked its fifth season.

Park owners, when it was built in 2015, envisioned thousands of people cascading down colorful water slides and relaxing in the slow current of the “lazy river,” Now, emptiness and silence have replaced the sounds of splashes and the laughs of children.

Safety equipment is missing, phones do not work and the water is cloudy, Michael Hokanson, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Health’s North Central Health District, told The Telegraph about a recent informal assessment of the park.

On Monday, lawyers for Macon-Bibb County express-mailed a notice of default of the ground lease to Jeff Franklin in Marietta.

Franklin’s Company, Spirit of America Theme Park and Development LLC, agreed in December 2014 to a 20-year-long lease to run the water park on the county’s land by Lake Tobesofkee.

County lawyers allege, in summary, the following lease violations, according to a copy of the letter The Telegraph obtained Friday:

  • Spirit abandoned the property after committing to continuously occupying and using it.
  • Spirit, in failing to open during “peak water park season” this year,” caused the county “extraordinary loss” because Spirit agreed to pay 1% of the park’s gross revenue as rent.
  • Spirit “allowed the water and electricity to be cut off, which damaged improvements,” and the lease required it to “keep the premises in good condition and repair.”
  • Spirit failed to build out the park as it agreed to in the lease.

In 2017, the park was placed under the control of a receiver, who is someone court-appointed to administer the property.

In 2018, its first profitable year, the water park was managed by Florida-based Jeff Ellis Management. Now it is without management.

“From there, we have been dealing with attorneys,” Macon-Bibb County spokesman Chris Floore said.

The receiver gave permission to Art Barry, III, a commercial real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Commercial Eberhardt & Barry, to try to sell the park for about $900,000.

In December 2018, Barry tried to get the county to buy it. He told commissioners it makes sense because the county already owns the land and it’s in the Lake Tobesofkee Recreation Area.

Commissioners will have to decide what to do next, Floore said.

For now, the county has picked up the tab so that utilities will remain connected.

“We didn’t want it to fall into disrepair while there’s any legal issues going on,” Floore said.

Phone difficulties

Despite not having an official health inspection since summer 2018, Franklin, reached by phone Friday, insisted the intention was to open this summer.

“We were all dressed up and ready to go but we couldn’t go,” Franklin told a Telegraph reporter. “The park was clean and pristine and great. Everything was working. We just couldn’t get our emergency lines turned on by AT&T.”

Since he was unable to get the emergency phones in July, “the investors backed out and then the park went back to the bank,” Franklin said. “The park was in the receivership for two years with Pearson’s bank and they took it out of receivership to sell it to investors I had. Then, I was going to run it and pay them off.”

Franklin said the park sees about 26,000 customers each summer.

“It just didn’t pull the attendance,” he said. “I was trying to get it open in July and August and we just could not. We had difficulty getting AT&T to put phones in. ... The investors just felt uncomfortable and I don’t blame them.”

According to emails to and from the health department, obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act, Franklin requested an inspection on July 1 by the health department.

On July 18, he reported continuing issues with getting the park’s emergency phones repaired. On Aug. 2, he notified the department that he had no plans to open the park this year.

Donna Cadwell, the department’s environmental health deputy county manager, sent an email thanking Franklin for the notification. She added that getting the permitting process for early 2020 “would be a good idea.”

Franklin replied promptly:

“Thank you for your email. Not sure where my heart is in the park.

If you have a moment, google: Mr Bags television and the Unlikely President, I quietly wrote and filmed with the help of the state and local cities.

I didn’t tell anyone, but the water park and surrounding towns were supposed to be the home base for writing and filming inspirational funny and serious shows.

Just so you know, you and your Dept were in the one I just started. I’ll keep you in the loop.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Macon-Bibb County spokesman Chris Floore’s last name.

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Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.