Local Features
11:19 am
Fri July 3, 2009

State Parks Tighten Belts

Cadiz, KY – This holiday weekend, the skies will be a little darker at many of Kentucky's state parks. In hopes of saving some state-appropriated cash, park officials decided to axe fireworks displays throughout the Commonwealth. But some communities have banded together to keep the skies bright. Carrie Pond talks with officials about the budget crunch.

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It's a difficult time for some state parks. Case in point: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed closing 220, or 80 percent, of the state's parks to counteract a crippling budget deficit. Compared to the Golden State, Kentucky's parks are weathering the recession well during the General Assembly's special session legislators appropriated an additional 5 million dollars in state park funding. Communications Director for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Gil Lawson says state appropriations account for roughly a third of the parks' yearly budget. Because of appropriations like this one, the parks department has received a steady amount of funding from legislators. The problem, Lawson says, is that costs aren't steady.

We pay people to work for us, we buy food, we operate buildings with utility costs all those things have gone up, so it becomes a challenge every year to continue operating the parks at the same level people expect.

So officials have spent the last year trimming the fat from the parks' budget. The change guests will probably notice the most this year was the statewide cancellation of fireworks shows.

We thought that fireworks would be something that we could live without and our customers could live without.

Lawson says the cut saved 70 thousand dollars to use toward the daily operation of parks something they felt guests would miss more than a one-time event.

I think we were worried how it would affect the people and even the local community that really enjoyed that and really expect it.

That's Lake Barkley State Resort Park Manager John Jordan. He says the fireworks' cancellation left him crossing his fingers that guests wouldn't cancel too. But despite this, Jordan says the funding cut was for the best.

It was hard to justify us providing funding for that when we were cutting positions and reducing hours.

But Jordan needn't worry in April a group that named itself Friends of Lake Barkley State Resort Park formed to procure funding for the event, and the event will wow spectators today just as in years past. Kenlake and Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Parks were also able to find private funding; ensuring western Kentuckians get their fill of Independence Day pyrotechnics.

Cutting fireworks funding was just one of the ways the parks department is keeping its head above water during the downturn. Gil Lawson says they're revamping gift shops statewide by reducing the number of items offered, cutting back on state vehicle use, and leaving vacant positions unfilled.

This last weekend we did curtail some of the hours at some parks, especially the recreation and historic sites. But we tried to do it at times and places it wouldn't affect a large number of guests.

Lawson says parks may have shutdown earlier or closed on some weekdays, when traffic is lower anyway. John Jordan says the changes were really just about vigilant fiscal responsibility.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. In the past we haven't really had to look at being extremely efficient. And now, we have to look at every cost-saving measure we can and be effective with every dollar we spend.

Gil Lawson says he thinks what's helped the parks most is the "visit your own backyard" marketing campaign. Since 80 percent of the yearly operating budget comes from revenue generated, parks had to make sure guests kept coming. So last year when gas prices skyrocketed, park officials posed this question: when it costs so much money to fill up the tank, why don't people stick closer to home and have the same relaxing vacation in Cadiz, Hardin or Gilbertsville they'd have at Myrtle Beach or Gulf Shores? After the economy tanked, Lawson says the focus just shifted from fuel efficiency to thriftiness and smart spending. And the tactic seems to have worked parks across the state are reporting higher numbers of Kentucky "tourists," and the occupancy rate is on par with last year quite the feat in the economy's current state. John Jordan says he's noticed the changes too.

They're not traveling from California and places like that anymore but Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, those areas we're still seeing some participation.

And though the first few months of the downturn were a little shaky, Jordan says June's group sales numbers were the best Lake Barkley's seen in several years. And this holiday weekend's turnout looks promising as well the lodge is full occupancy and a steady stream of cars began checking in Thursday afternoon.

And that's music to park officials' ears.

For WKMS News, I'm Carrie Pond.