Submitted by Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein
As the debate continues about Alabama’s budget crisis and the Legislature’s proposal to take $10.4 million from the State Parks System, plus another $1 million from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, uncertainty hangs in the balance.
Here are 10 things I want to share with our supporters and skeptics about Alabama State Parks in 2015:
1) Alabama’s state parks are now approaching what is normally our busiest and most prosperous time of the year – summer. We have numerous events and programs scheduled for the coming months. Several new recreational concessions will be starting operations in the next month and several others are entering just their second or third year of operations.
2) Our state parks staff and volunteers are a tremendous asset when it comes to providing the public with a positive experience in the parks. This human capital is incredibly valuable to the system. 184 of the State Parks System’s 748 employees are volunteers — that’s 25% of the overall workforce.
3) Our parks offer a great “park product” to the public, as demonstrated by the Trip Advisor Awards of Excellence earned by nine of our parks in 2014. These awards are decided by visitors and are based on their personal experience at our parks.
4) All 22 parks are fully operational for the first time in 20 years, which began a period of renovations and recovery from natural – and unnatural – disasters. Throughout that 20-year period of disruption, park attendance has remained stable. The past six years have been the best on record, revenue-wise, for the Parks System, but we still operate a barebones budget with very little cash on hand. That is why raiding this revenue will have a crippling impact on the Parks System.
5) From a strictly budgetary standpoint, Alabama’s Parks System operates as the most efficient State Park System in the Southeast, based on guest revenue compared to expenses. Across the nation, Alabama’s Parks System ranks in the top three using that same comparison.
6) Despite the transfer of $12 million from the administrative and maintenance funds during FY2012 and FY2013, the Parks System has been able to cope with maintenance and administrative costs to improve and maintain a quality “parks product” by drawing on our reserve funds. Those funds are now gone.
7) The Alabama State Parks System’s cash balance is at its lowest point since 2000. This, along with the seasonal patterns of our cash flow, amplifies the potential impact associated with the proposed transfer of $10.4 million of State Park System funds. Despite the implementation of efficiencies started in 2000, the costs of materials, utilities, insurance and staffing have increased significantly over time.
8) A 2014 Economic Impact Study performed by the University of Alabama demonstrated that our state gains a tenfold return ($375 million) on investment in our State Parks System. In 2014, the Parks System had 4.6 million visitor occurrences. Our State Parks System is a highly valued public service program that improves our quality of life and brings significant revenue to the communities where our parks exist.
9) Since our budget crisis has become publicly known, the outpouring of support from citizens who love and appreciate their state parks has been tremendous. A new Facebook page supporting the State Parks System (AL State Parks Partners) gained more than 22,000 “likes” on their page in less than two weeks.
10) The Alabama State Parks System is a user-pay system – one that is now attracting private investment and partnership relationships. We need the public to continue to visit and use the parks this spring and as much as possible this summer. Your support is more important than ever.
Park partners need to continue speaking with family, friends and elected officials to let them know that a fully funded State Parks System brings benefits beyond measure. Please know that we are doing everything we can to keep the state parks open and to ensure that we continue to provide the kind of service guests have come to expect. We are open for business and hope to see you very soon at one of our 22 beautiful state parks.