Ruling Voids Deal at Army COE Campgrounds
A cooperative agreement that allowed a nonprofit group to manage five Thurmond Lake campgrounds along the Georgia/South Carolina border must be terminated because the Army Corps of Engineers had no legal authority to create such a venture.
The legal review at headquarters affected joint agreements at other corps projects across the country, but the Thurmond Lake venture was the only one in the corps’ Southern region.
The company, Lake Thurmond Campgrounds, was awarded a five-year contract last March to manage the Petersburg, Ridge Road, Modoc, Raysville and Winfield campgrounds, The Augusta Chronicle reported.
“We were highly pleased with the arrangements, and we thought it was a good idea,” corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said. “We were also doing it at Lake Hartwell but had not implemented it yet.”
The change was touted as a way to provide better services under a commercial business model, meaning the company could advertise, conduct marketing campaigns and offer retail sale items to visitors.
Based on a legal review of such programs nationwide by the corps headquarters in Washington, however, the provision that allowed nonprofits to keep and reinvest revenues back into the parks that generated them is not allowed.
“In other words, unless they change the law, the camping fees they collect must go to the U.S. Treasury,” Birdwell said. “The arrangements we were implementing were outside of our legal authority, and therefore we must end them immediately.”
The concept was devised as an innovative way to enhance the camping experience for visitors, Birdwell said.
“One of the ways we determined we might try this is to use these nonprofits to operate the campgrounds and – under a lease agreement – they would collect the camping fees and use those fees to cover their expenses and to enhance the campgrounds,” he said, adding that the corps remained responsible for capital expenses and physical structures.
Corps officials estimated the arrangement would translate to a savings of $300,000 to $400,000 a year.
The next step for Lake Thurmond Campgrounds remains unclear.
“We were very surprised and we are trying to get a game plan together now,” said Michelle Wilson, the executive director of the Lincolnton-based company.
In addition to working with the corps to find a solution, the company is making contacts with members of the congressional delegations in Georgia and South Carolina.
“We thought, for our first season, it was smooth and everything ran tremendously well,” Wilson said. “We were excited about planning the 2014 season, and we are optimistic we can work this out in time for the 2014 season, but we don’t know how long it will take to do this.”
Because of the ruling, the corps has made financial rearrangements to keep all five campgrounds open for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Four sites – Ridge Road, Modoc, Raysville and Winfield – were scheduled to close for the season then anyway, Birdwell said, and the corps plans to keep Petersburg open year-round, as scheduled.