When the Oklahoma Tourism Department announced earlier this year that seven state parks would close due to budget cuts, the news was shattering to fans. Now, many of those parks are getting a second chance, thanks to community support and partnerships. In some cases, parks slated to close after this summer will remain open with barely a leaf out of place.
The department says closing the parks will save nearly $700,000 a year, and the 10 employees who work at those locations will be transferred.
The parks to be closed are Adair State Park in Stilwell, Boggy Depot in Atoka, Beaver Dunes in Beaver, Brushy Lake in Sallisaw, Heavener Runestone in Heavener, Lake Eucha in Jay and Wah-Sha-She in Copan.
The parks had a combined visitation of 496,275 in fiscal year 2010, according to the agency. Of those numbers, Adair State Park had the highest attendance of 158,854 visitors, while Lake Eucha had the lowest with 5,636 visitors.
After announcing the closures, Deby Snodgrass, executive director of the Tourism Department, said partnerships with communities and tribes were possible, which may keep the affected parks viable.
“We hope that we can find partners … willing to keep these facilities open for the public to have access to recreational opportunities,” she said.
This is good news to communities who neighbor the tourist areas.
“It’s hard to equate what the park brings in, but when you look at the tax base, it’s big,” says Mike Kennerson, city manager for Heavener, which butts up to Heavener Runestone.
Carrie Blackburn of Oklahoma City always enjoyed visiting Heavener Runestone with her husband and three children. When she learned the park was to close on Aug. 15, she says she was shocked.
“I think it’s sad — a tragedy, really,” she says. “I understand that a lot of places are having trouble with funding, but I think it’s an unwise decision. When we found out Heavener was on the chopping block, we were just stunned.”
But, there is a bright side. “We’ve had conversations with communities about taking over operations of those parks,” says Leslie Blair, public information officer for the state Tourism Department. “Closing the parks was absolutely not something we wanted to do. But if you look at the budget situation, we had to do what was best for the long-term health of the state park system. I think the communities will have a little more flexibility by taking over operations. We’re working on the documents that lay out the steps for initial transfers and guidelines. We’ll also work with the communities to help them in any way we can.”
As the state hopes to save those parks, other groups and communities also are stepping up.
“The city of Heavener will operate that park, along with the nonprofit group Friends of Heavener Runestone,” says Kennerson, who also was voted as president of the 501(c) (3) entity. “The friends will raise funds to help operate it, and the Tourism Department had $108,000 a year budgeted for the operation of that park.”
Approved by the Heavener City Council in May, Heavener probably will use volunteer labor at first, but plans to hire a full-time staff to coordinate volunteers and run the gift shop, he says.
Heavener took over operations of the park on July 1, and Kennerson says the city hopes to boost not only the popularity of the area, but its revenue.
“When you look at the economic impact of the park, I’d say we get approximately 100,000 visitors a year. Our goal is to increase that to 250,000 to 300,000 visitors,” he says. “Visitors (contribute) $80,000 a year in tax revenue.”
Kennerson says of that $80,000, state tax revenue is approximately $40,000, county tax revenue is $10,000, and Heavener and Poteau city tax revenue is $30,000.
“We will look at ways to not only operate the park, which is free and open to the public, but also improve the park to generate revenue,” he says.
HOPE FOR OTHERS
In May, Osage Nation officials announced they were evaluating the condition of the Wa-Sha-She State Park in Copan, with the possible goal of taking control.
Other tribes and communities are exploring ways to keep the parks open.
“We’re still gathering information and still studying the park to see if it’s a viable project for the nation to undertake,” Chris White, executive director of government affairs for Osage Nation, said in May. “It does fit in with the Osage Nation’s longrange strategic plan. The tribal members expressed a desire to enhance water recreation in the long-range plan.”
As of May, however, no decision had been made.
“We are continuing to have conversations with the Choctaw and the Chickasaw nations on the other parks, like Boggy Depot,” says Blair. “We’ve had ongoing conversations with communities that are interested in taking over park operations, and we will continue to reach out to those communities to come up with a solution.”
The state tourism department operates 42 parks, which will drop to 35 once the parks are closed.