The effort to expand the Ocmulgee National Monument is about more than just quadrupling its current 702 acres.
It’s also about connecting two separate features, moving toward designation as a national park, shifting the main entrance closer to downtown Macon and starting a corridor of public lands that could stretch 40 miles south to Hawkinsville.
“I think it’s critical,” Alex Morrison, Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority executive director, said of the expansion plan. “As it sits today, the Ocmulgee National Monument is the number one tourist attraction in Macon-Bibb and in all of Middle Georgia. The expanded boundary could greatly increase the number of visitors and number of users.”
Public comments closed Friday on the Ocmulgee Old Fields Boundary Study and Environmental Assessment, a 156-page document filed in support of a request to the U.S. Congress to allow -- and fund -- expanding the monument by 2,100 acres.
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Last week, the Macon-Bibb County Commission and the Perry City Council both voted to support the expansion plan. Other groups such as the Urban Development Authority and NewTown Macon are involved in buying land, and the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative was formed specifically to work toward the larger-scale plan.
The Urban Development Authority has partnered with NewTown on related projects for years but got directly involved in this initiative when it gained steam a couple of years ago, Morrison said.
The Ocmulgee Land Trust -- managed by NewTown -- and the Peyton Anderson Foundation are involved in buying and holding land in anticipation of expansion, said Brian Adams, Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative president. More land may be donated, and if Congress authorizes funds for land-buying, that will reimburse the agencies that already have put up money, he said.
“We hope to get a revolving loan fund going so when parcels do become available, we can act quickly,” Adams said.
The majority of the land needed, however, is already publicly owned, he said.
Morrison said land could be conveyed to the National Park Service as soon as Congress approves it, but that timeline is uncertain.
“We’re not sure how long it will take to get word back from Congress,” he said. “We could be looking at a vote for the expanded concept in a couple years.”
Time and money
Archaeology reveals that the banks of the Ocmulgee River were inhabited as early as 12,000 years ago, but the mounds are part of the Mississippian culture that spread across the Southeast and lasted nearly 700 years, until the 12th century.
“According to Muscogee (Creek) Indian tradition, it was here that their ancestors ‘first sat down’ and began farming the rich alluvial bottomlands along the Ocmulgee River,” the boundary study says.
It was donation of land that allowed the current monument to come into existence in 1936, after Congress authorized its creation in 1934, according to the study. The original legislation allowed up to 2,000 acres but didn’t authorize buying any land.
The tracts actually donated are widely separated: The 45-acre Lamar Mounds tract is about 2 miles south of the 656-acre main section and is accessible only by shared right of way along a dirt road.
There’s evidence that prehistoric settlement occurred well beyond the current boundaries. The current expansion plan would bring 16 known archaeological sites under federal protection, as well as shielding wetlands and wildlife from development.
Most of the target area is undeveloped wetland, stretching south to meet the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Some relatively small tracts, on the north and east sides of the current main section, are developed. There are a dozen occupied buildings and several unoccupied within the proposed new boundary, the study found.
But property owners don’t need to fear condemnation if the expansion is approved, according to the study.
“Property would be acquired only from willing donors or sellers, subject to the availability of funding,” it says.
That last phrase is key: A basic assumption of the study is that Congress would not only authorize expansion, but authorize money for it.
Gateway to prosperity
One aspect of the boundary expansion plan -- ironically, through the most-developed section -- is ready to go immediately: moving the national monument’s main entrance from Emery Highway to Coliseum Drive, directly opposite the Marriott City Center and Macon Coliseum.
Last week, the Urban Development Authority’s Properties Committee met in the Marriott, then walked the three-block route along Clinton Street to the national monument’s pedestrian gate, through which the Temple Mound is visible.
“We are in the process of buying the property along Clinton Street and coming up with a plan,” said committee member Chris Sheridan, a general contractor. “We have all of the property we have to have to initiate the project.”
Bibb County funded that land purchase before its 2014 merger with Macon’s government, he said. A few more parcels are wanted, but it’s already possible to turn the stretch into a greenery-lined one-way entrance -- though construction would require more money, Sheridan said.
“It will be a wonderful and grand entrance into the park,” close to downtown and easily visible to hotel guests and drivers coming off Interstate 16, he said.
A more visible entrance should greatly increase attendance, committee members said. The study found that the monument’s annual visitors now consistently run between 110,000 to 125,000 – but that’s half what it was in the mid-1980s.
“A decline occurred during a three-year experiment with an entrance fee and has never recovered,” the study says.
Increased attendance and easier access mean more money in the Macon-Bibb economy, as visitors stay longer, renting hotel rooms and buying meals, perhaps seeking more local entertainment as well, Morrison said.
The Archaeological Conservancy wants to donate 300 acres to the monument, but that would require congressional acceptance. Meanwhile, Macon-Bibb County, the Georgia Department of Transportation and NewTown Macon also have offered to donate tracts of various sizes, the study says.
“Other lands would need to be acquired with appropriated funds,” it says.
The National Park Service sent letters to all the property owners within the bounds of the immediate expansion plan, and “99.9 percent” of them didn’t object to the study taking place, Adams said. But that’s a far cry from agreeing to sell or donate their land. He said many landowners in the grand swath on the way to Hawkinsville haven’t even been contacted.
Adams said it’s fine if private landowners don’t want to sell their land for the proposed park. Eventually, those tracts would come up for sale, so the area could be “backfilled” in years to come. But authorization for this first round of expansion is a vital part of the effort to get national-park designation, and then to move southward along the Ocmulgee toward Hawkinsville, he said.
How much money would be needed to make those dreams come true is unknown. But an indication is provided by a recent purchase of 679 acres, said Mike Ford, CEO of NewTown Macon. That land will be held until Congress approves accepting donations of land.
Supporters of the expansion paid a little more than $1,300 per acre for the land, he said. While no further purchases are in the works, extrapolating that price should be “in the ballpark” for figuring the current expansion cost, Ford said.
At that price, purchasing the currently contemplated 2,100 acres would cost about $2.7 million, though project backers expect much of that land to be donated by public agencies.
For the recent land purchase, however, the expectation is that a federal appropriation eventually will reimburse the local buyer, Ford said.
Adams said that 679-acre purchase was funded by the Peyton Anderson Foundation and isn’t actually within the currently contemplated expansion. It’s held in hopes of the greater plan, perhaps many years down the road.
For now, such gestures and supportive public comments make him optimistic about chances of congressional approval and longer-term success, Adams said.
“We’re just thrilled to see the community get behind this,” he said.