Due to a change in Upson County’s park ordinance, those hoping to catch the shuttle between the Flint River Outdoor Center and Sprewell Bluff when they want to float the river may soon have to find alternate transportation. According to Commissioner Steve Hudson, the Flint River Outdoor Center (FROC) will not be allowed to use the county-owned park for commercial use after June 30 of this year; which has FROC owners Margie and Jim McDaniel rather upset.
“That’s our livelihood,” said Margie McDaniel when asked how the change would affect their business. She noted the shuttle service is a great aid to their customers because many come in just one vehicle and need a way to Sprewell Bluff after renting canoes or those who bring their own canoe park their vehicles at the FROC , using it as a stopping point. She went on to say that Sprewell Bluff is the main access point for those going down the river because when the water level is low, you cannot make it all the way down the river if you put in at Goat Mountain, and not allowing them access could very easily put them out of business. The McDaniel have already torn down their convenience and package store at the front of the property due to the Georgia Department of Transportation building a new bridge to replace the existing one.
At their regular meeting on May 27, the Upson County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to change their current park ordinance when it comes to commercial activity, specifically dealing with Sprewell Bluff. Hudson noted that after having the intergovernmental agreement the county has with the DNR reviewed by the county attorney, there was some concern about the wording of the park ordinance, which is why the board had a new ordinance drawn up. The previous ordinance only required a permit to be purchased for any commercial activity at the county owned park. Now, in addition to that, County Attorney Paschal English stated the company will have to have prior approval and consent of the Board of Commissioners for any commercial activity.
After the change was made to the ordinance, a letter was sent to the FROC from the county stating that as of June 30, 2014 they were not allowed to use Sprewell Bluff Park for any commercial venture. The McDaniels can purchase a park pass for individual use, but are not allowed to cart canoes into the park that have been rented to individuals.
All of this began after Commissioner Hudson stated he had received numerous complaints from citizens wondering why they had to pay to go into the park, but the FROC did not. He stated when the Department of Natural Resources owned the park; they issued the FROC a yearly permit to operate a canoe rental service for a fee of $100, which the county did as well when they took over the park in 2013. However, when he re-read the permit, he noticed it stated that all persons the FROC took into the park were required to have the Georgia Outdoor Recreation Pass (GORP). Hudson alleged the FROC never offered to make canoe renters purchase a pass.
“When I saw the number of canoes entering the park compared to the amount of gate receipts that we were getting, I asked Margie McDaniel to add $1 per canoe to help the park. I was told emphatically ‘No’,” said Hudson.
McDaniel stated that she does not remember Hudson asking her to add the dollar fee, but feels if that was the main issue, then the commissioners should have pushed the matter and told the FROC they would not be able to enter the park as a business unless they made the change. She noted they have paid for the yearly passes for their 15-passenger vans that are used as the shuttle buses, which cost $50 each. McDaniel continued stating she did not understand the problem with the FROC running the shuttle service, seeing as they were only in the park for about 15 minutes while they are unloading people and the canoes; they were not staying at the park. She estimated on a weekend when the water is up, they may bus in 50 people to the park.
“We worked that whole first year the county owned the park without any problem,” said McDaniel. “Then this year when we went to renew our pass they could have said something if there was a problem, but they didn’t. They just told us our passes were good until the end of the year. I think they should have had the courtesy to come to us, because this will put the county out of a lot of money. The people who come here spend money at the hotels, the restaurants and for gas. With us being commercial, they could have doubled our fee, but they didn’t come to offer anything.”
Peggy Casteel, a friend of the McDaniels and patron of the FROC, is distraught over what is happening.
“I do not have a dime invested in this place, so as far as the money, it does not mean anything to me, but personally, this is killing me because I know what they have done down here,” said Casteel. “You don’t know how many people travel this road and stop in because they need a place to stay or a meal and they are given it. They (the McDaniels) do a lot of good here.”
Casteel noted that over the years, in addition to serving as a canoe rental outfit, shuttle service and campsite, the FROC has served as the main headquarters for many rescue efforts on the Flint River. She continued stating that the McDaniels and others have always joined in on the search and rescue efforts and offered whatever was needed at no charge.
“When the guy jumped off the bridge a year ago and died, his family stayed here. They were fed here. People from here spent hours searching and it wasn’t just the rescue people who were paid to do so. Every time there has been any type of rescue needed on the river, guess who they call on, the center down here.”
Casteel stated she fears what may happen when the next emergency comes along if the FROC is no longer there.
The McDaniels have owned the FROC for nearly four decades and are hoping that an agreement can be worked out with the Board of Commissioners so they are still able to run their shuttle service.
“I lost my business up front the first of this year, now they are trying to take the rest of it. Thirty-seven years we have been here and have never had a problem.”
McDaniel noted that in addition to talking to Hudson, she had spoken with the rest of the board members, who have told her they would try to work something out between the county and the FROC. However, she plans to be at tonight’s commission meeting to continue to plead her case if an agreement has not been reached beforehand.
Ashley Biles can be reached by calling 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @AshleyBiles1