An often overlooked aspect of the national financial crisis and the subsequent political emergency is the impact on Georgia’s state parks. As tax revenues dropped in the wake of the financial collapse, Governor Sonny Perdue and the General Assembly slashed the Department of Natural Resources parks budget by almost forty percent, from $27.4 million to $16.8 million.
Georgia had a total of 63 state parks and historic sites. Before the economic collapse and budget cuts, Georgia’s state parks were ranked among the best in the nation. Now some of those parks are closed and lack of funds for upkeep and staffing is causing others to deteriorate.
Some parks, like John Tanner State Park in Carrollton, are no longer managed by the state. When we camped there a few weeks ago, we were surprised to learn that the state had turned Tanner over to Carroll County. To prevent closure of the park, the county government agreed to assume control of the park. For now, the park appears unchanged with signs still pointing the way toward Tanner State Park.
Sally Winchester, Marketing and Public Information Manager for Georgia State Parks, told me that only one park, Lapham-Patterson House Historic Site in Thomasville has had to close. Other parks are still open with reduced services, reduced staff, or reduced hours. In some cases, such as Tanner, local communities have stepped in to manage the parks.
As we camped in other parks over the summer, we noticed telltale signs of neglect. In one park, the bathroom stall did not have a latch to keep the door closed. Park workers told me that they were aware of the problem, but did not have the funds to repair it. More commonly, miniature golf courses, concession stands, and even admission kiosks where visitors pay to enter the park are unstaffed. Increasingly, parks are relying volunteers rather than paid employees.
Chris Clark, commissioner of Georgia’s state parks, notes that just over half of the operational budget is accounted for by fees such as those charged for parking, camping, renting lodges, and playing golf. One of his goals is to increase the capacity of campsites and cottages in order to increase park revenue.
We have noted that in the Atlanta area, demand for campsites is high in spite of – or perhaps because of – the recession. It is almost impossible to get a campsite on a weekend at parks such as Red Top Mountain, Fort Yargo, Indian Springs, or High Falls without making a reservation in advance. The popularity of camping may be partly due to the fact that camping is an inexpensive pastime. In a state with high unemployment, it is easy to understand why inexpensive leisure activities are popular.
If the state can find money to invest in increasing the number of campsites and lodges in Georgia parks, it would help the parks to become more self-sufficient and ease the burden on the state budget in the long term. In the short term, however, it might be difficult for the state to find the funds needed for the expansion.
One possible answer to the park’s short term needs might be through corporate sponsorships. Georgia is already considering partnering with companies to benefit state parks. This would not involve renaming parks after corporations, but might include something similar to Adopt-a-Highway signs that give companies and organizations credit for keeping roads clean or sponsorship of park programs.
While some probably believe that any corporate sponsorship of state parks would taint the pristine nature of the parks. In my view, tasteful partnerships between parks and corporations would help to keep parks open, well maintained, and even enhance the visitor experience.