After almost a century as "our nation's finest," the Kentucky State Parks system has lost some of its luster. Economic strains are taking a toll on our parks, nationally and in Kentucky.
Kentucky's parks have reached a tipping point. The legislature can and must provide the resources to prevent the downward spiral of these treasured jewels.
Visionary leaders set aside park lands in Kentucky, remarkable places of natural wonder, wildlife, wilderness, beauty, historic importance, recreation and play.
Like all state agencies, parks have reduced their budgets over the past four years.
A business model of greater efficiencies was implemented, and operational costs were reduced by millions of dollars, resulting in considerable sacrifice and strain on an already weakened system.
State parks staff experienced four consecutive years of reduced hours, in addition to furloughs. We were able to adjust without closing a single park, although winter hours were shortened. No permanent staff were laid off, though many vacated positions were not filled and duties were combined
The Kentucky Department of Parks manages 3.6 million square feet of building structures at 51 parks, and maintains 45,000 acres of land and water. In the last decade maintenance funds were reduced nearly in half, while the parks department was charged with overseeing additional venues, including golf courses, conference centers, a Frankfort cafeteria and historic sites.
Kentucky State Parks generate approximately $48 million in annual income from various sources, primarily lodging, camping and food sales, the third-highest revenues of any state park system, behind California and New York. Kentucky has the most lodges (17) and conference facilities of all state park systems. The Department of Parks receives $29 million annually to offset operating costs, yet it is one of the most efficiently run parks systems in America.
Viewed by some as mere amenities, parks are not recognized for the economic stimulus they provide by drawing tourism, sales tax revenues and retail sales for nearby businesses. Many of our parks are in rural areas, and this tourism helps sustain nearby communities.
A study by the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business in 2004 put the economic impact of state parks at $317 million, with an additional $115.4 million worker earnings impact. Another study, by Certec, Inc., put the financial impact on the state as high as $840 million annually.
Parks purchase more than $5 million in food within Kentucky. Parks purchase other goods, gift shop items, products and services from state vendors, utilities and contractors, with an estimated total of more than $78.5 million annually.
State parks stimulate, invigorate and educate. They provide free and unlimited access to all citizens and are some of the few places where people of every economic class, race, religion and ethnic background can enjoy life-enhancing experiences with family and friends.
Considering our sedentary lifestyles and increased obesity and diabetes, state parks are more relevant today than ever.
The conservatively estimated 3 million annual visitors demonstrate the continued appeal. More people visit state parks than attend races at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, Kentucky and Loiusville basketball games and Bourbon Trail tours combined.
More and more, state park systems depend on volunteers and corporate commitments. Kentucky parks receive outstanding support from individuals, volunteers and park friends organizations, as well as the important State Parks Foundation.
State parks, which will never be completely self-supporting under the current model, are priceless areas set aside in perpetual trust to provide an essential public service. They are as important as schools, highways and other public services that rightfully draw on the state's treasury.
Almost everyone I met while serving as commissioner agreed that funding state parks is critically important.
Kentucky should study funding mechanisms in other states which, in addition to general funds, include dedicated funds and co-branding partnerships. Arkansas levies a one-eighth cent conservation tax. Missouri has a parks, soil and water tax. Both received overwhelming voter approval, demonstrating how much citizens value their state parks.
Examples from other states also include a portion of lottery sales, opt-in donations when renewing licenses, motor fuel tax, real estate transfer tax and a sporting goods tax. This information was part of a 2010 strategic plan provided to legislators.
While state parks have survived severe weather damage in recent years, the economic storm has been much more debilitating. The parks have hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needs.
Only through citizen action and appeals to our legislators will action transpire. I have confidence in our state and its leadership that it will.