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SC parks directors: Yes we can

Gov. Nikki Haley wants South Carolina’s state parks to generate enough revenue to cover operating expenses by the end of 2013, something no other state park system in the country has managed on a consistent basis.

Yet Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and state parks director Phil Gaines are confident it can be done.

“I think we have to do it,” Gaines said. “The days are over of saying give me taxpayer money.”

South Carolina’s state park system, a division of the state tourism agency, already has come a long way in its bid for self-sufficiency – from covering 66 percent of its operating expenses with park revenue in 2002 to 83 percent last year. The state’s general fund contribution to park operations has shrunk from $8 million to $4 million during that period, and the goal is to zero it out in two years.

But the goal is lofty. Only a few state parks systems come close to breaking even. If it can be done, why don’t more states do it?

“Because it’s hard,” Parrish said. “And because they haven’t had to, (but) the world changed in 2008 and 2009.”

South Carolina had one advantage when the Great Recession arrived. A centralized online reservation system implemented in 2005 allowed an increase in reservations from 93,500 in 2005 to 124,500 in 2010 despite the economic hard times. It also made personnel cuts during the recession a little easier to take because the fewer rangers now in parks at least are spending less time booking campsite or cabin reservations, Gaines said.

But the agency will have to be more innovative to close the final $4 million gap. The most obvious change, and one indicative of the long-range plan, is a tiered annual park passport instituted this year. Parrish, a Haley appointee whose background is in the hotel business, advocates setting prices based on demand. The statewide passport, which includes entry to five popular coastal parks, jumped from $50 to $75 on Jan. 1, but there’s also a new $50 inland park passport for the other 42 parks, and a $99 passport that includes all parks, free historic home tours, free swimming at Upstate parks and a $10 parks gift card.

Parrish noted that families typically visit coastal parks three times in a year, translating to a cost of $25 per trip if they buy the new annual passport.

“What else can you do for the family of four for $25?” Parrish said. “We’ll still be the best value out there.”

If a park is too crowded during certain periods or if there’s a waiting list for a program, that might be a signal the fees can be increased, Parrish said. But he recognizes the parks also should be affordable for the general public. The daily fees to enter parks aren’t changing.

Fran Mainella, former director of the National Park Service and Florida state parks, is a visiting scholar at Clemson and a fan of South Carolina’s state parks. She has faith Gaines, who she knows well, won’t let revenue-production overtake stewardship of the parks.

“We do need to make sure the state parks always serve the entire state,” Mainella said. “But parks and government entities as a whole are going to have to be more aware of generating revenue.”

Fee increases are just one factor in a complicated equation that focuses more on how to get more people to the parks, especially in periods when they have been under-utilized, and trimming expenses through efficiencies.

For instance, the first Black Friday half-price sale on state park cabins last November brought in $24,000 in revenue for rentals on often unused weekends.

Managers at the individual parks also have been given freedom to offer deals on their own if they’ve got a cabin empty for a night or two between reservations. Also, notices on the park service’s Facebook site have helped fill cabins after last-minute cancellations.

Letting people play golf for free at Cheraw State Park on a normally slow weekend last year actually increased the golf course’s revenue for the weekend over the previous year by $400 as golfers splurged at the grill and pro shop.

Thirty people last summer paid a premium for a spot on the Caesars Head overlook, usually closed after dark, for a spectacular view of Fourth of July fireworks displays in the several Upstate cities below.

Among the future possibilities is a splash pad-type structure to draw more people to Sesquicentennial State Park, which Parrish feels is under-utilized by the fast-growing Northeast Richland community.

By themselves, those projects aren’t going to close the gap, but little steps add up. Parrish figured if the agency could pull in an extra 50 cents from every visitor each day they’re in the parks, it would add up to $4 million per year. With that in mind, the selection of goods in park gift shops have been expanded.

A PRT study indicates overnight visitors to South Carolina state parks already account for $49 million in spending inside and outside the parks each year.

If South Carolina reaches its goal, its park system will rank among the most efficient in the country. According to data included in a report PRT compiled and recently submitted to Haley’s office, only two state park systems in the country – Vermont and New Hampshire – covered all of their expenses with park revenue in 2009. Oklahoma was the only other state that raised more than 90 percent of its operating budget through park revenue.

Vermont covers nearly one-third of its state parks operating expenses with land-lease revenue from private ski resorts operating on public land. Thanks to that deal, begun more than half a century ago, Vermont’s state parks are expected to be self-sufficient.

“We’ve been operating in a business-like fashion for a long time,” said Vermont state parks director Craig Whipple. “Other park systems haven’t relied as much on revenue as we have.”

The tourism drop during the Great Recession has impacted all state park systems, and Whipple said Vermont was only 97 percent self-sufficient last year, which still would rank it among the top two.

If you factor out Vermont’s ski resort leases, New Hampshire has the most self-sufficient state parks. In fact, the state legislature mandated in 1991 that the parks’ operations be self-funded, said New Hampshire parks spokeswoman Amy Bassett.

It’s been a slow process, and the parks agency has had to go to the legislature during down years and ask for help, Bassett said.

They’ve stayed close to self-sufficiency, though, thanks to nearly $1 million in annual revenue from parking meters in coastal parks and periodic capital infusions from the general fund to make improvements, and lure paying visitors, to the most popular parks. But to save money, some parks aren’t staffed during off-peak visitation periods.

“We’ve gotten better at figuring out this is what we can do, and this is what we can’t do,” Bassett said.

The most self-sufficient park system in the Southeast is Alabama’s, which covered about 89 percent of its operating budget with park revenue in 2009. (Georgia is at 66 percent, and North Carolina, which takes a different approach, is at 18 percent.)

Alabama, with 343 hotel rooms, 224 cottages, five golf courses and three parks with more than 350 campsites, has a huge revenue-generating advantage over South Carolina, which has 78 lodge rooms, 148 cabins, two golf courses and one park with more than 200 campsites.

Parrish and Gaines have no plans to ask the state to build more revenue-enhancing facilities, but the governor’s report lists $154 million in deferred maintenance projects. Some of the critical big-ticket items are $1 million for a new marina at Dreher Island, $3.75 million to replace water/sewer systems at Hunting Island, Oconee, Santee, Table Rock and $9.39 million to upgrade campground electrical systems to accommodate new recreational vehicles. Those projects also could help generate new revenue.

Parrish hopes that if the agency becomes more self-sufficient in the next few years, legislators will be more willing to spring for some of those projects. But he doesn’t want to ask for operational funds after 2013.

“We have to (work toward self-sufficiency) so the next time the economy turns south, we’re OK,” Parrish said, “because when we’re up there asking for money along with public safety, education and health care, guess who’s fourth on that list?”