Troup County’s new Oakfuskee Conservation Center is earning rave reviews.
Fabulous! Incredible! Breathtaking!
“Use any wonderful adjective you can think of to describe it. There’s nothing like it,” said Susan Ferguson, one of hundreds of area residents who already have experienced the spacious, well-appointed, eco-friendly event center in Pyne Road Park on West Point Lake.
Designed to combine nature and elegance, everything from the ballroom to the bathrooms has been earning high praise since the facility opened Dec. 1.
Already, Oakfuskee has hosted weddings, small and large meetings, meals, an Active Life tea, Christmas celebrations and multiple conferences. In its first week, the facility was the scene of the sold-out Mayor’s Ball, a gala event conceived by LaGrange Mayor W.T. Edmondson as a fundraiser for scholarships.
The building is a huge hit, but it’s the view that draws the most “Wows!”
Situated atop a point near the tip of Pyne Road Park, the conservation center offers a wide, unimpeded view of West Point Lake. Facing west, it showcases amazing sunsets.
“I think it’s the most beautiful view on West Point Lake,” said Troup County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews.
The spectacular view is centered by a remarkable 80-year-old slash pine, standing majestically alone near the shoreline. Oakfuskee’s floor-to-ceiling windows – even a peek-through fireplace – make the tree visible from every vantage point.
LaGrange architect Gordon M. “Skip”Smith Jr., who designed the facility, recognized the significance of the tree on one of his first site visits.
“The whole building is lined up with the tree,” he said.
The tree was the “obvious choice” for the facility’s logo, which also offers a nod to the area’s Native American cultural heritage reflected in the name Oakfuskee, said brand specialist Andy Fritchley of Atomic Brand Energy.
“The tree personifies Oakfuskee,” said Troup County Manager Eric Mosley, alluding to the facility’s focus on the environment.
More than a venue, Oakfuskee is also a conservation center committed to leaving a minimal ecological footprint while safeguarding the local ecosystem. Sustainable design is featured throughout, and the lower level includes the new home of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, with office space, a lab and indoor classroom. (See accompanying article for more on Riverkeeper.)
Built in 15 months by Sheridan Construction, the building is impressive and inviting, with a dramatic entry, exposed beams, original art by local artists and a fireplace mantel fashioned from a 700-year-old cypress log reclaimed from the Chattahoochee River. The ballroom can adjust for smaller events or expand to accommodate 300.
A carefully-planned bride’s room contains many special features, like hanging rods high enough to accommodate formal gowns, and a row of salon-style stations perfect for a bevy of bridesmaids. A comfortable groom’s area doubles as a conference room with a view.
Outdoor spaces are a major part of the design, with large, covered patios on both levels, offering flexibility and shelter. A fire pit with seating overlooks the lake.
“It’s way more than we dreamed of,” said County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews. “We are extremely pleased with the building, with the way it looks and functions and with the positive reaction to it. We are grateful to the organizations that made it possible. It’s going to be a wonderful asset for the community.”
In addition to $3 million in SPLOST funds, the $13 million project was underwritten by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Callaway Foundation and the federal American Rescue Act.
The grant funding, Crews said, made the spectacular building possible, instead of the “concrete floors and metal barn” that might have been.
“And not a single penny of property tax” was used, Mosley said.
Going forward, the facility is expected to pay its own way, and under the terms of the DNR grant, any profits will be used for additional improvements to Pyne Road Park.
Oakfuskee’s fast start was no accident.
Both Crews and Mosley sought input from LaGrange’s Downtown Development Authority, which manages the highly successful Del’Avant event center. Recalling the slow start at Del’Avant, their advice was “Don’t wait until you build it to start booking it.” Events like weddings and large meetings are scheduled months in advance. If you wait for the paint to dry, a new facility can sit largely idle for months.
County leaders turned to Atomic Brand Energy, the contracted marketer for Destination Troup, which created an active social media strategy months before the opening. Brand specialist and owner Andy Fritchley said one facet of the approach was to use biweekly drone photography to share the panoramic setting online, along with updates on the building’s progress.
Since marketing to brides was a big part of the assignment, Atomic staged a styled photo shoot weeks before the opening, featuring two of their employees as the “bride” and “bridesmaid,” with friends and models in other roles for photos both inside and lakeside.
The “wedding photos” were shared online in multiple ways and used as part of a newly upgraded Oakfuskee website (Oakfuskee.org).
“That one move really helped us,” Crews said. “We hit the ground running and started generating cash immediately.”
Another early move that’s paid off, Crews said, was enlisting Anna Knight, who manages events for Del’Avant, the Abbott Atrium and other facilities, to also manage rentals for Oakfuskee.
“We are very lucky to have Anna,” Mosley said. “She has a great background, and her experience has been a huge asset.”
That background, including more than a dozen years as an event coordinator, helped the Oakfuskee opening go smoothly, Knight believes.
“All I’ve learned at Del’Avant has been useful here. Everything that worked at Del’Avant, we did here.”
While Oakfuskee is getting a lot of attention now because it’s new, Knight believes that Del’Avant will also remain successful and other local venues can also continue to thrive.
“The venues are completely different. It’s really a matter of preference, in town with hotels and churches or lakeside with the view and outdoor options. Every bride has a vision, and there’s room for both,” she said.
Knight has already seen a situation where having multiple options proved beneficial. A bride and groom were looking to hold their wedding in LaGrange, midway between their hometowns of Milledgeville, Georgia and Selma, Alabama. Del’Avant was booked on the desired date, but Knight was able to tell them about Oakfuskee.
“They booked it. Having the second option kept them from going to another town. They’ll bring about 300 people here on Oct. 1 and spend their money in Troup County.”
Another perk, she explained, is that Oakfuskee, like Del’Avant, allows hosts to hire their own vendors, a cost-saving opportunity that’s rare in larger cities, like Atlanta.
And that, adds Commission Chair Crews, benefits businesses across Troup County.
“We are creating jobs and opportunities for small businesses out here every day,” he said.
The idea of a facility of some type at Pyne Road Park is not new. County leaders and citizens alike have long recognized that the park has unrealized potential. Architect Smith’s involvement goes back to 1976, shortly after the lake was impounded, when he completed a walking trail project there as his Eagle Scout project, never dreaming that he would someday complete a much larger project at the park.
As early as the 1990s, various development ideas were floated and a proposal to build a “celebration center” with horse arena was put forward in 2004 but never happened.
In recent years, the county has upgraded camp sites, pavilions and picnic areas and built a “mega boat ramp” for fishing tournaments. Yet a larger project remained elusive, largely due to lack of funds.
“The timing was just right this time,” said Crews. The success of the DNR grant coinciding with the availability of the federal funds, coupled with the Callaway support and voter-approved SPLOST funding, made Oakfuskee possible.
Now leaders hope that Oakfuskee will be the catalyst for other improvements, not just to attract weddings and meetings, but to create more opportunities for Troup County residents to visit West Point Lake.
The potential is virtually unlimited, said Kathy Tilley of Visit LaGrange.
“West Point Lake is our largest tourist attraction, drawing millions of visits per year, but it’s not easily accessible to everyone. If you don’t live on the lake, own a boat or fish, then it is difficult to enjoy the lake. With the addition of Oakfuskee and the water-based amenities that are planned around it, many more people will be able to get out on the water and enjoy the peaceful beauty that is found there,” Tilley said.
The county is looking forward to improving Pyne Road Park in ways that will benefit the community, Commissioner Crews said. That might include expanding picnic and pavilion features, wildlife viewing stations and walking trails. Lodging options, like cabins or “glamping,” are distinct possibilities, along with kayak rentals and more. A lakeside amphitheater with opportunities for musical events and festivals with food trucks could be in the future.
“It’s in the realm of possibility that we could create a mass of activities that would attract a wide variety of local citizens,” Crews said.
Just how big could the impact of Oakfuskee be?The jury is still out, but county leaders believe there is reason to be excited and optimistic. The facility is already fully booked for summer weekends and fall is filling up. Several major events have been held and more are on the calendar. One bride has booked a 2027 wedding.
“Great Wolf Lodge just had their national sales meeting with hundreds of Great Wolf employees, executives and salespeople coming to LaGrange. They hosted a massive event at Oakfuskee and loved every minute of it. The open spaces, the views of the lake, the secluded location surrounded by nature, all combined to make their meeting spectacular,” Tilley said.
Meanwhile, Mosley said, the focus is on continuing to improve, finding out what’s the process and fine-tuning efficiencies “for us and the taxpayers,”
A father of two, Mosley admits he’s poured his heart and soul into the project and jokes that his family refers to Oakfuskee as “his third and favorite child.”
Crews, too, is proud and grateful for what Oakfuskee means now and what it could mean for generations to come. He’s eager to get more people out to the site, including a joint meeting of LaGrange civic clubs planned this month.
“Once you see it,” he said, his voice brimming with anticipation. “Until you walk in and see it, you just can’t believe it.”