ALBANY, Ga. -- The head of the area's largest animal habitat and campground said that park-goers will be able to see some significant changes around the bend for the park that was created through an act of the state 74 years ago.
Doug Porter is the executive director for Chehaw -- an 800-acre wildlife preserve, campground and zoo that straddles the Dougherty-Lee County border on Philema Road.
Speaking to the Downtown Sertoma Club on Thursday, Porter said that there have been some aggressive and visible changes planned for the facility in recent years, many of which are already completed and operational.
Perhaps the biggest addition under way at the park is the conversion of a portion of what has traditionally been viewed as a 200-acre buffer on the park's northern edge.
Thanks to an agreement with the park's patron, world-renowned zoologist Jim Fowler, Porter said that a portion of that buffer is being altered to serve as a large, free-roaming area that will include animals from Fowler's farm and other zoos, including zebras, antelopes, gazelles and ostriches.
Porter said that once its open -- which likely won't be for the public at large until early 2012 -- park visitors will be able to ride with park guides and roam among the animals like never before at the park.
"When you see something like that, you say, 'Man, this pretty cool for Southwest Georgia,'" Porter said.
In addition to the safari project, Porter said that the park has partnered with a offroad biking group to create seven miles of manicured, off-road biking trails throughout the park.
Chehaw has also worked with the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission to wire the park with fiber optic technology and is currently speaking with city of Albany personnel about extending sewer lines out to the park, which would enhance the campground and the park's RV park.
In terms of a long-range project, Porter said that if Chehaw and the city can get the sewer lines extended, they plan to develop the area along the park's waterfront to have canoe rentals, more camping space, concessions and other amenities.
Some of the changes have already taken hold, he said.
Through the use of special local-option sales tax funds approved by the voters, Chehaw has renovated its main entrance off Philema Road to expand the number of lanes entering the park -- a measure that was most recently felt during the Native American Festival last weekend.
"When we first started having big events like that, some people would be sitting out on the road for two hours waiting to get in ... traffic was backed up that far," Porter said. "Now, we've largely cut that down enough that staff thought our numbers were off during the Indian festival."
The park has also re-branded itself as "Chehaw" with a distinct logo, rather than the former moniker "The Parks at Chehaw."
Calling the park an "urban oasis," Fowler said he hopes Chehaw will remain a protected environment even as commercial development pushes in that direction.
"I hear people talking about how great it would be if they'd just open the park up for commercial development," Porter said, "... but I believe that it's an urban oasis for the current community and needs to be protected.
"Build all you want around it, but leave the park as a whole the way it is."
In terms of events, Chehaw is having a Party for the Planet Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will feature a Scraps to Sculpture art display, recycling bin decoration, interactive animal programs, cake and even a Snag a Bag of Zoo Poo event.
Chehaw will also be kicking off its week-long summer camps for kids on May 30, starting with Zookeepers 101.
A full list of events is at the park's website, www.chehaw.org.