JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — The Johns Creek City Council unanimously voted to approve a new facility use agreement with Autrey Mill with provisions to reevaluate funding for the nature preserve in one year.
Responding to Autrey Mill’s request for operational support, the council agreed to take on phone and internet costs but left questions about the visitor center unanswered.
Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center is a 46-acre park that includes 3 miles of trails, animal exhibits, historic buildings and a small museum. It offers programs including summer camps, classes for children and adults, scout activities, lectures and seasonal festivals.
When Johns Creek incorporated, the city bought the nature preserve from Fulton County. The city owns the land and buildings and is responsible for upkeep of the facilities, but the programs are managed by the nonprofit Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Association.
A facility use agreement allows the Autrey Mill association to offer programing on the city property, similar to agreements with Newtown and Ocee Recreation groups.
Under the current agreement, which is set to expire at the end of the year, the nonprofit has the ability to request capital improvements that the city could then choose to fund through its annual budget process. In 2019 the city funded an addition to the parking lot.
As the contract was up for renewal, Autrey Mill asked for a contract that allowed them to request operational funding as well as capital projects.
Autrey Mill Board President Pam Sutton attests that the nonprofit provides services to the public, such as staffing a visitors’ center, answering email and phone calls, providing trail maps and coordinating volunteers and contractors that go beyond what the current contract dictates.
In September, the city’s Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee recommended that the council approve a new contract that allowed Autrey Mill to request operational funding, but the council asked to see more details about what requests the nonprofit would make before it changed the contract.
One request was easily resolved. Autrey Mill said it pays about $1,800 a year for phone and internet costs. At a Nov. 4 work session, the city agreed to take on these costs.
If the city didn’t contract with Autrey Mill, the city would pay for those services, Mayor Mike Bodker said, just like the phones at City Hall or internet at Park Place.
Autrey Mill said it would also like the ability to bill the city for staff hours spent coordinating volunteers and contractors who tend to the grounds. But, the request drew pushback.
“If our contractors aren’t doing their job, then our job is to get our contractors to do their job,” Bodker said. “It’s not for Autrey Mill to manage our contractors. We’re responsible for our contractors.”
Sutton said that because of the historic nature of most of Autrey Mill’s buildings, more sophisticated supervision is required.
“With nine buildings and seven of them historical, exterminators, plumbers, electricians, there’s always something going on,” Sutton said. “When those people are sent, our staff is the one that not only lets them into the building but also needs to watch to make sure they don’t suddenly cut a hole in a wall that was built in the 1850s.”
The city said it would review and try to improve the volunteer and contractor coordination process so that Autrey Mill was not overburdened.
“What I’d like is clear delineation of who’s got what,” Bodker said. “An easy one, from my vantage point, is we own it, we fix it, we maintain it. If that means more coordination, it means more coordination, and that’s both parties’ responsibility.”
Autrey Mill also operates a visitors center. When regular staff are engaged in programming, Autrey Mill hires part-time staff so the facility can maintain the hours posted on its and the city’s website.
“It’s very important, I think, as ambassadors of the city to provide that and not just say ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know when we’re open or closed,’” Sutton said.
The council agreed there is value to the city in providing a visitors center, but members were unwilling to give carte blanche for the nonprofit to staff the center as it sees fit. The council suggested Autrey Mill work with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to see if it could be a source of funding.
The council agreed to reevaluate Autrey Mill’s contract in April 2020 to see if its new strategies could cover the gap in Autrey Mill’s needs.