FRANKFORT — With Gov. Steve Beshear's blessing, Kentucky's state parks system is making major changes — including controversial moves to sell alcohol at some parks and to cut the work hours of parks employees — to save $6 million a year.
Tourism, Arts and Heritage Secretary Marcheta Sparrow said there are no plans to close any of the state's 51 parks, which include resorts, recreation parks and historic sites, to cut the budget.
The changes are based on a study of the parks system by Indiana-based PROS Consulting. The state rejected a recommendation in the study to charge admission to state parks.
"This plan, based on the most comprehensive study ever conducted of the park system, not only is the first step toward getting the system's financial house in order, but also provides a road map to bring our parks into the 21st century," Sparrow said.
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Among the changes outlined Thursday by state officials:
■ Allowing private concession companies to operate food services at seven resort parks — defined as those that have lodges — and sell alcoholic drinks with meals at four of them.
■ Opening Kentucky's 17 resort parks Wednesday through Sunday only from Nov. 15 to March 15. Closing the parks on Mondays and Tuesdays would save $600,000 a year.
Recreational and historic parks also will have reduced winter hours, as they have in the past.
■ Making sure that state parks employees work 37.5 hours instead of 40 hours a week, beginning July 15.
That would affect about 850 of 1,000 workers and make them work the same number of hours as central office staff and most state employees. No parks workers will lose their jobs.
■ Privatizing the 18 golf courses at Kentucky parks.
■ Permitting temporary agencies to hire part-time seasonal employees for the state parks department.
Beshear said in a statement that the state parks "are among the state's greatest assets."
"They are great tourism attractions and important economic catalysts for every region of the state."
Alcohol sales at parks
Several efforts have failed in the state legislature in recent years to allow the sale of alcoholic drinks at some state parks.
Sparrow and state parks commissioner Gerry van der Meer said they think the law does allow the sales through private vendors at resort parks in "wet" areas.
Those would be at Lake Barkley at Cadiz, General Butler at Carrollton, Jenny Wiley at Prestonsburg and Buckhorn Lake at Buckhorn. The move could raise $1 million a year for the state.
Private vendors will be able to bid to provide food services and alcohol sales at the four parks.
Three more resort parks in dry areas also could privatize their food services but could not offer alcohol. They are Kentucky Dam Village in Marshall County, Rough River in Breckinridge County and Kenlake in Marshall County.
Donald Cole, executive director of the Kentucky League on Alcohol and Gambling Problems, said the sale of alcoholic drinks at state parks will hurt business.
"Our parks are family-oriented and attract a lot of senior citizens," he said. "Selling alcohol in our parks will only increase problems."
Cole also said he opposes any privatization at state parks.
"The day could come when they could establish memberships to get in," he said.
Sparrow said the parks will not have bars or cocktail lounges, but said that drinks might be sold on the golf courses.
Lee Jackson, president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said he was "very concerned" about the reduction of hours for parks employees and will ask KASE's attorneys to review the policy.
"We also have always been opposed to privatization of state government," he said. "We don't think that will save any money."
The parks report also recommends more emphasis on adventure tourism, a priority of the Beshear administration.
That would include adventure sport festivals, competitive trail running, mountain biking, canoeing or kayaking, wildlife viewing, wellness and outdoor events for seniors, and expanded outdoor and wildlife programs for people with disabilities.
Sparrow and van der Meer also said they are considering a recommendation for increases of 5 percent in the price of lodging at state parks.
They said state parks never will be profitable, but they are needed.
The state parks budget is about $83 million a year.
In 2008-09, Kentucky parks generated $53 million in revenue, behind only California and New York among all state park systems. That was about 64 percent of the total operating expenses — the highest in the nation for state park systems similar to or larger in size, according to the National Association of State Park Directors.
An online version of the complete report is available at www.parks.ky.gov. Click on the "media" tab to find the report.