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May 27, 2009

The poor outdoors

Kentucky’s park system gears up for the summer surge amid economic recession

With its two-bedroom cottages, fireplaces and lake views, Pennyrile Forest, located near Dawson Springs, Ky., has made an idyllic getaway for John and Marie Hourigan over the years. Since their first trip there in 1960, the couple has bounced around Kentucky’s dozens of state parks, vacationing with their family each summer.

“Kentucky is as about as close to heaven as you can get to without dying,” says Marie Hourigan, 79, adding the park scenery provides an escape into nature that is unrivaled. “I love the parks — the mountains, the water, everything is just gorgeous.”

They’ve made a few trips to Florida, but the couple prefers the picturesque woodlands of the commonwealth’s state parks such as Barren River, General Butler and Rough River Dam. Sometimes Hourigan plans vacations three years in advance to reserve plenty of rooms for the entire family — her husband, children and grandchildren. They all pitch in for gas, food and the cost to rent three or four large cabins to house their growing family.

Though the deepening recession has forced many tourists to cut back on vacation spending, Hourigan says the short distance to state parks keeps their expenses reasonable. And while tourism in many states has taken a hit due to the economy, officials here are banking on the fact that the Bluegrass has historically fared well in such times because it offers so many affordable vacation destinations to its residents, as well as those living in heavily populated states in the region.

“In general Kentucky does fairly well in bad economic times when it comes to tourism,” says Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, which oversees state parks. “We’re not like Las Vegas. Most of our tourists come from this area and it’s easier to get here from surrounding states and cities. Our location is convenient.”

In recent years, tourism in Kentucky has generated about $840 million in revenue annually. State parks officials are anticipating a booming summer, but they admit the state’s projected $1 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year could eventually force devastating cost-cutting measures, like temporarily closing some parks.

It’s still unclear how future cuts could affect the park system, but Lawson says visitors this summer should not notice any significant changes.

“All of our 52 parks are still open, from the small historic sites and museums to the resort parks where you have lodges and cabins and lakes,” he says. “Our guests will still see the same naturalists, fishing and miniature golf tournaments they did last year.”

For fiscal year 2010, state legislators allocated about $30 million to help fund Kentucky’s 52 state parks, slightly more than what was budgeted the year before, but not enough to offset rising costs. As a result, the tourism cabinet has instituted some cost-saving measures, like limiting hours of operation at some facilities and leaving employee positions vacant.

Given about two-thirds of the department’s budget comes from lodge rentals, food sales and souvenir purchases, it’s now up to tourists to determine how well state parks fare economically this year.

In an effort to boost revenue, state officials have launched a marketing campaign urging Kentuckians to “discover your own backyard.” Park officials are hopeful coupon offers and lodging discounts will encourage those who are passing on costly long trips to visit places like Mammoth Cave, the Corvette Museum and the Newport Aquarium. Lawson says attendance numbers over the past two months are strong and they’ve seen no big dip leading into the summer.

And although Kentucky has not yet closed one of its state parks due to budget constraints, it is a possibility in the future.

“For about a year a state park can delay buying new equipment or acquiring new vehicles, but you can only do that for so long before you start suffering,” says Philip K. McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. “Many park directors are doing anything they can to try to keep the public from seeing the problems. But pretty soon you’re out of options.”

Right now most state parks officials across the country are uncertain about their financial futures as general assemblies finalize budgets, he says. In California, for instance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 20 percent of the state parks and beaches in January. Only after huge public outcry did the governor back off, but like other states, current deficits aren’t resolved and pending crises are ahead.

“Based on everything I’m hearing I think next year’s going to be worse,” McKnelly says. “If we can survive that, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s pretty early to even say that.”

With significant budgetary challenges projected for next fiscal year, Kentucky’s top priorities must come first, says Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear, adding that state leaders will have to make tough decisions about cuts once the economic forecast is determined.

“Additional cuts are going to be made,” he says.  “It’s premature to speculate about what the impact might be on specific programs. Parks are certainly a priority, but if you’re asking me if it is as high as education, healthcare or public safety — no.”