JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — This fall, the Johns Creek City Council will have an opportunity to revise its agreement with Autrey Mill in a move that could grant a new source of operational funding for the nature preserve.
Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center is a 46-acre park that includes 3 miles of trails, animal exhibits, five 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 day-to-day operations and programs are managed by a nonprofit, the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Association.
The city’s facility use agreement with Autrey Mill expires at the end of the year, and the association is asking for changes to the contract.
Under the existing agreement, the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Association can request capital projects that the city would fund through its annual budget process. For example, in 2019 the city funded an addition to the parking lot.
Now, Autrey Mill is asking for a contract that allows the nonprofit to request operational funding as well as capital projects.
“We absolutely are not comfortable signing an agreement unless we simply have the right to request future operational support,” Autrey Mill Board President Pam Sutton said.
Sutton attests that the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Association provides services to the public, such as staffing a visitors’ center five days a week, answering email and phone calls, providing trail maps and coordinating volunteers and contractors that go beyond what the current contract dictates.
“Without future operational support, these are the activities that will be eventually cut from our association,” Sutton said. “We’ll be forced to use our resources gained from program dollars and fundraising only to provide specific programing and events that we can sustain and to take care of the animal ambassadors.”
The Facility Use Agreement would not guarantee any operational funding to the nonprofit, only the ability to ask. No changes would take effect until the 2021 fiscal year budget. This funding, if granted in the budget, could go to the salaries of Autrey Mill staff or the office expenses of the visitors’ center.
“We want to continue to provide these services,” Sutton said. “We want to have a visitors’ center that’s open. We want to greet visitors on a daily basis. We want to have groups that come almost on a weekly basis to mulch the trails, but we can’t do that without staff, and we can’t pay staff on what we charge for programing.”
At a Sept. 18 meeting, the Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee, which gives nonbinding advice to the City Council, unanimously voted to recommend the council accept Autrey Mill’s requested changes.
During discussion, Committee President Chris Jackson warned that accepting Autrey Mill’s request could open a “can of worms” for the city. Autrey Mill’s contract is similar to the facility use agreements the city has with the Newtown and Ocee recreation associations, and Jackson speculated other third parties could come forward with funding requests.
However, the committee members agreed that Autrey Mill’s status is unique, and its programs are important to the city’s overall parks vision.
“It’s just an ask,” Advisory Committee member Shafiq Jadavji said. “If the City Council members believe that the association is providing value to the citizens, I think they’re smart enough to say — if [the Autrey Mill association is] having budgetary constraints or other constraints — that we can decide to chip in some dollars from our end.”