Little Ocmulgee State Park’s New Manager Back in Familiar Territory
As the new general manager at Little Ocmulgee State Park, Brad Smith is in familiar territory. Smith, who has been at his new post for the past four and half months, grew up in South Georgia. He was born in Atlanta but, with his parents, moved to Jesup as a young child. His parents are originally from Alma. After he finished college, Smith launched a career in the restaurant/hospitality industry that spans 35 years, including a quarter century in Nashville, Tennessee. His experience in that arena stood him in good stead for his role at Little Ocmulgee. “Part of the joy of this job is getting to come back to the area where I grew up. A lot of the stories I could tell about myself center on this part of the state,” Smith said.
Smith appreciates the unique qualities of “Little O,” as it is called by those who love it most. Situated in the rolling sand hills and pine woods on the Little Ocmulgee River, the Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service in the 1930s and opened to the public in 1940; but long before that, the land was an Indian encampment. Smith believes the site retains a certain spirit that harks back to the days when indigenous tribes roamed the land.
“A lot of effort has gone into making the Park what it is, and I am fortunate to be on the receiving end of that effort,” Smith said. “There is
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something for everyone here, whether it is fishing, or hiking, or canoeing, or golfing, or just sitting under a tree by the lake and reading a book.” But Smith is grateful that the site has not been so developed that it has lost the lure of its natural features. “People come here looking for something peaceful. They unplug from their busy lives in the city.”
Visitors to the Park— an estimated 100,000 plus annually—come from within a 100-hour mile radius as well as from across the nation to spend a day or two at “Little O,” enjoying the 54 campsites or the 10 fully-equipped, waterside cabins, fishing in the 265-acre lake, or hiking the 4 miles of trails meandering through the sand hills and along the lake shore.
A great many visitors fly into the Telfair-Wheeler Airport close by and spend a few days golfing on the famous Wallace Adams Championship Golf Course. The classic, 18hole golf course is known as a top-flight venue in a secluded, natural setting, and is a favorite spot for a quick nine holes after work or a full-fledged golfing vacation. “The golf course is popular throughout the multicounty area as well as for visitors from across the country. The course was designed with a challenging layout and is a beautiful walk through nature. It only takes one good shot and you will be coming back,” Smith said. He noted that the golf course supervisor has been with the park for 38 years “and literally knows where every sprinkler is located.”
Smith pointed out, “A big component of our visitation comes from the golfing groups that fly in here and stay at our Lodge. Our busiest times are spring and fall when we have groups of 15 of more golfers coming in to stay for several days,” Smith noted. This consistent aspect of park visitation was one of the thoughts behind the construction of “The 19th Hole,” which recently went under construction in a former private dining room space at The Lodge. The new venue will feature a “pub style” atmosphere and menu and is expected to open on April 1, 2022.
Also ongoing at the Park is the construction of a new bathhouse at the campgrounds, and there are plans to rebuild 5 of the 10 cabins fronting the lake. The park’s lake recently underwent changes to improve fishing. Troublesome plant life that impeded anglers and boaters was removed and the lake was recently stocked with 5,000 bream. About a year ago, the Lodge guest rooms were upgraded with all new, high-end furnishings right down to the linens, and most offer queen-sized beds. The Park management is also taking a look at the future of the Visitor’s Center, which is an original log building from the CCC era. In the past, the building was used for gatherings and educational purposes.
Smith summarized his management style as hands-on. “I don’t stay in my office all day.” But as much as he admires “Little O,” he doesn’t have a lot of time to relax and enjoy it. He likes to do walkabouts—to be out on the golf course looking at greens and bunkers, or patrolling the lake deciding where limbs need to be trimmed. “You can always be improving a place this size,” he said of the 1,360acre site. “About 75% of what I do is work with department heads in housekeeping, grounds, sales, and accounting. Throughout any given day, I try to spend some time with each of these people. Then, about 20% of my time I spend interacting with guests as I walk around the Lodge or on the grounds. The last 10% of my day is devoted to administration.” He also enjoys working with the Friends of Little Ocmulgee, a volunteer organization that sponsors special projects at the Park.
Smith said he learns a lot about how people are enjoying the many amenities of the Park just by roaming the grounds. He is gratified by what he is witnessing. “We were open Thanksgiving Day and we had two family groups each with about 50 people. We are seeing families starting to get back together and use our facilities.” Corporate groups are booking the conference center, and local and regional meetings are occurring more frequently as the nation emerges from the long, dark days of the pandemic. “We still have people discovering Little Ocmulgee every day. I like to ask people where they are from and it seems that a fair amount of our visitors are moving through from Florida to North Carolina and stopping here to break the trip and spend a few days.” He understands why Little Ocmulgee is a mecca for campers, golfers and nature enthusiasts. “It’s a perfect size with an assortment of activities, but it’s not huge. You can easily find your way around and still find places to be alone.” He observed, “The sunsets over the lake are beautiful with the light reflecting on the water, and you can see the sunsets all year long.”
Smith assumed the reins as Park manager from his brother Clint, who moved to St. Simons Is-land— so he came to the job highly recommended, and he had more than a passing acquaintance with the Park. Owned by the state of Georgia and under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Park is operated by the North Georgia Mountains Authority and managed through a contract with Coral Hospitality, of which Smith is an employee. “We are stewards of this land. The Park belongs to the state and the people,” Smith said of the philosophy behind Little Ocmulgee’s management. “The state and Coral Hospitality are great partners.”
Among Smith’s goals for the immediate future are growing the programs already in place and continuing to build on what he describes as a great team to continue the legacy of Little Ocmulgee. “I do want us to grow, but maybe not too much. This is somewhat of a hidden gem. I don’t want it to be high-traffic and detract from its peacefulness. I want to refine what’s here and keep a well-oiled machine working,” Smith observed. He believes parks are a touchstone in communities. “Many people remember the first time they came to Little Ocmulgee— or to another park. It is a special memory.” Little Ocmulgee State Park is located in Wheeler and Telfair counties on U.S. Highway 441. Gates open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. For more information, visit: www.littleocmulgeelodge. com.