Specifically, he was at Lake Guntersville State Park having a delightful time, enjoying the scenery. It wasn’t, however, all fun and games. The governor made the point that Alabama’s parks aren’t just a luxury, but a potential economic asset that could be very good for the state indeed.
State parks in Alabama have enjoyed something of a good time under Gov. Riley. Generally, they have undergone renovations and expansions thanks mostly to a $100 million bond issue passed during the Siegelman administration. The park at Lake Guntersville got a $24 million renovation, while the golf course there got another $2 million in improvements. Others, including Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Joe Wheeler Park in Rogersville and Lakepoint Park in Eufaula, have also had big money spent on renovations and upgrades and expansions.
Mount Cheaha, too, has been a beneficiary of the bond issue. About $1 million has been spent there. The lodge has been redone, but, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, there’s been no expansion because of the difficulty brought on by its mountaintop location.
This kind of spending is an easy target for someone advocating limiting government expenditures. But wasted money this is not. The state Department of Tourism tells us that about 21 million visitors come to Alabama each year, and a good many of them visit the 22 parks covering 47,000 acres in the state. In 2009, those visitors spent about $10 billion and paid close to $700 million in state and local taxes. That, says the department, represented some 5.5 percent of the state’s gross domestic product in 2009.
Tourism, in other words, can be big business. But you take maximum advantage of it by creating the right kind of infrastructure.
People are less likely to continue to visit Cheaha to see the leaves change, the lodge at Lake Guntersville to go sailing, or Lakepoint to go bass fishing if the facilities are falling apart.
They’ll come, keep coming and come in droves, however, if you make it a nice experience for the customer, says Thomas Dunlap of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
That’s not just his opinion. He’s got numbers to back it up.
He ticks through the state parks, noting that our Mount Cheaha is “a consistent winner, popular with families, an ideal spring and fall get-away,” where revenues have risen by about a $1 million since the renovations.
At Guntersville, where the lodge was expanded, he says revenues have doubled.
“That place is doing very well,” he said. “Last year it generated $4.5 million. This year, through August, it had already generated $4.6 million and $650,000 in profits. Lakepoint has done very well because of the renovations, too,” he said.
“In 2004, Lakepoint came in at $1.6 million,” he said. “So far in 2010, it has made $2.2 million.”
Overall, Dunlap explained, the state parks system is still losing money, but not nearly as much money as before the renovations.
“In 2006, we were losing about $6.5 million a year,” he said. “This year, we are going to lose less than $2 million.”
If the state hadn’t gotten hit with some bad luck in the form of the BP oil spill, it would have been even less, he said.
The state has spent about $35 million on Gulf State Park, including building the pier and doing a lot of work on the campgrounds and other existing facilities. But the summer season, Dunlap explained, was dismal.
It’s not just the revenue generated by the parks that makes a difference. It is that effect on the local community. As the Department of Tourism numbers make clear, some big money comes through the state every year in the pockets of tourists. If you can persuade more people to visit, to stay longer and to spend more, then all of Alabama benefits.
Dunlap says Lake Guntersville State Park is a good example. The number of employees went from eight to 70, and the lodge expansion brought more visitors in, positively affecting the local economy in the neighborhood of $18 million. Most of that money stayed right there in the area, he added.
Ideally, all of our state parks would show a net profit every year. But when you see what kind of economic impact they have, it is obvious the system is an income generator for Alabama.
Perhaps a long-ago Anniston mayor had the right perspective, merely on a municipal scale. When he dedicated Zinn Park to the people’s use back in 1929, Mayor Sidney Reaves said, “As cities become congested there is a greater need for parks and playgrounds. (They) are not a luxury. They are investments.”
Anniston Star Editor at large John Fleming explores issues related to the area’s economy and businesses in this weekly news column. Send topic suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org