Missouri wants more people to enjoy state parks - and fewer people to work there
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 19, 2009 - Just a few weeks after Gov. Jay Nixon called for new efforts to increase attendance at Missouri state parks, his administration announced Monday that 120 out of 700 park positions would be eliminated because of a budget crunch.
The precise dollar amount and types of positions to be cut were not immediately available. The final figures will depend in part on personnel rules that will determine whether some employees whose jobs might be cut can in turn bump those with less seniority.
But Travis Ford, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said the cuts were driven solely by finances, a result of declining revenue from the designated one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax that brings in 75 percent of the parks budget.
Revenue from the sales tax is down 6.2 percent from last year to this year, Ford said, and projections show a drop of another 6.5 percent from this year to next.
No general revenue goes toward running the system, which includes 50 parks, 35 historic sites and 200,000 acres of land with an annual budget of $55 million. Ford said the other 25 percent of the budget comes from items such as camping fees, concessions and souvenir sales.
Asked what effect the cuts would have on Nixon's push to increase park attendance, Ford acknowledged that "it makes the job more challenging."
But, he added, "increasing attendance at state parks is part of a big-picture economic development initiative. Parks employees alone can't be expected to drive attendance up. There has to be a concerted statewide effort to do that."
People familiar with marketing parks say that Missouri needs to make a more concerted effort to get the word out. The budget cuts aren't going to make that task any easier, said Steve Powell, whose tourism business, Destination Services, operates out of St. Charles.
"Most state parks have a fairly small staff to begin with," Powell said. "This makes it more difficult. If you increase the visitation, then certainly you would have to handle increased maintenance costs."
At a meeting of tourism officials last month, Nixon praised the state's natural beauty. He also pointed out that fewer people have been enjoying the scenery in recent years. In 1999, more than 18.2 million people visited the state parks; that number was down to 14.8 million last year, a decrease of nearly 18.7 percent in 10 years.
"Our parks represent Missouri's rich diversity of landscapes, ecosystems and cultural landmarks -- from canyons to caves, waterways to woodlands, and Civil War battlefields to artists' homes," Nixon told the group. "Boosting attendance at our state parks will help preserve a vital part of our Missouri heritage.
"It will also help grow our tourism industry, even in light of our current economic challenges. When times are tight, families are looking for value -- but they also want a quality experience. That's where our state parks come in."
Missouri voters have shown a willingness to support state parks. In 1982, a $600 million statewide bond issue included $55 million for park renovation and construction. Two years later, voters approved the sales tax that provides the bulk of the parks budget. The tax was renewed in 1988 and again in 1996.
REVERSING THE TREND
But while financial support for the parks was steady at the polls, the attendance was dwindling. Asked how they would combat the problem, fans of the park system had a range of ideas.
For Terry Whaley, who until this past weekend was president of the Missouri Parks Association, the problem is one of Missourians too often not appreciating what is just a short distance away.
"No. 1, it's a lack of awareness," Whaley said. "People are so trained to go somewhere else on vacation trips, they don't think of what is in their own backyard.
"When people have a vacation and want to get away, whether it's right or wrong, they want to get away as far as possible."
He'd like to see more stories about the people who are actually using the parks, so others can get a better idea of the range of experiences that await them.
"Who is fishing there? Who is canoeing there? Who is bird-watching there?" Whaley asked. "When I see articles like that, it's when I hear most about it -- people asking, 'Did you see that?' People are looking for what's going on in their backyard."
As far as other ways to get the word out, Whaley and others cited the need to join two seeming disparate factors -- the natural world and the virtual one.
"It's got to be electronic," he said about any new marketing efforts to sell the parks to the people. "It's a medium I don't always understand, but you have to be on Facebook, on Twitter, use e-mail alerts. That's the new marketing curve, where people are getting their information from.
"Junk mail doesn't do it. Stuffers in the paper don't do it. There is a whole generation who hasn't grown up with the state parks. We need to crank up the awareness a notch or two for that demographic."
Powell, in St. Charles, seconds that notion.
"The Internet is one of the best marketing vehicles out there," he said. "But there are some things they could do that don't cost money. Think of all the mail going out of Jefferson City. Think if each piece had a stamp on it saying something about the Missouri state parks.
"This is kind of like one of those out of sight, out of mind things. Spending some marketing dollars to keep it in front of the consumer would be a good expenditure."
IN THE PARK
Roger Niermann and Jeff Miller don't need any marketing material to know how good the parks are. Niermann has been using the Missouri parks for 30 years and was recognized by the state for that devotion; Miller is a Facebook friend of the parks system.
Both say they see plenty of fellow campers when they are in the parks, but they admit that things can always get better.
"They have made a lot of improvements, like accommodating larger RVs," Niermann said. "Some parks I can't visit anymore because they can't accept RVs like I have. They're still in the popup era.
"The state parks are always great for families with children who can take short vacations. When you go camping, people always have something in common and have a good time together. It doesn't take long to learn who your neighbors are."
Niermann, who lives in Florissant, said he started camping at Cuivre River State Park near Troy. Over the years, he has frequented a variety of sites including Table Rock, Bennett Spring, Montauk and more. Now that he is retired, he goes in the middle of the week, to leave the weekends for families.
Giving senior citizens and those with disabilities a midweek price break wouldn't hurt, he said. But what would really help is beyond the state's control -- price relief at the gas pump.
"Get the price of gasoline down so people will drive more," Niermann said. "If it means people aren't driving, then maybe they'll go to Babler State Park, maybe a half hour from anybody's home. Make that bigger so it can accommodate more."
For Miller, of Bridgeton, regular trips to spots like Hawn, Babler or Meramec state park has been a regular part of his recreational life for years. He is part of a loosely knit group of about 40 families, and it's easy to get a crowd together in a hurry.
"All through the year, we call each other and say, 'Hey, we're going to Hawn next weekend,' and it ends up being a big party."
But even though the reservation system is easy to use and security at the parks is good, Miller said he can't always go where he would like to on short notice.
"Every time we go camping in the park, it's filled to capacity in the summer," he said. "People are out there using it. We almost have to book at a six-month window to get sites. When I read that attendance was down, we were all kind of looking at each other and saying, we don't see it.
One improvement that Miller would like to see would help bring the wider world into the parks -- wi-fi access.
"It's good for safety," he said. "You can get weather maps, to see if storms are coming. You can check the river stages at Meramec. You can get on the Weather Channel or NOAA and see what's coming in miles away, so you can plan ahead."
Even without online access, though, Miller is happy the park system is still there -- and still available for everyone at a reasonable rate.
"The parks are clean. We're just happy the governor is keeping them open. In Illinois, they're starting to shut some of them down. Don't tell the governor, but we'd pay $25 a night. We'd rather see him raise rates than shut the parks down."