In the ongoing struggle to preserve or improve the nation’s infrastructure, most of the conversation has been about roads, bridges, water pipes and the like. Parks don’t often make it onto that list, even though they’re more in demand than ever. The parks’ open spaces and recreational opportunities have provided critical and healthy alternatives to shuttered museums, theaters, arenas and other recreational outlets through much of the pandemic.
More than one-half of the state park systems had annual visitation increases in 2020 from 2019, some at record levels, according to Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. This was true even though the pandemic required that most of the systems close or had restrictions on attendance for weeks or months.
Similar trends prevailed in city parks. The Trust for Public Land surveyed the park systems in the 100 largest cities, and there was a clear pattern of increased usage. “We’ve heard that many were double or triple their normal attendance rates,” reports Will Klein, the Trust’s project manager for parks research.
But even as more people have flocked to state and local parks (the national parks, which are often destination sites, have lost attendance), many have been grappling with sometimes extreme budgetary problems. “Officials know people enjoy parks and greenways,” says Monique Horton Odom, parks director in Nashville, Tennessee. “And yet when it comes time for budget reductions, parks departments are on the chopping block. So, there’s clearly a disconnect.”
In the current fiscal year, Nashville’s parks system lost about 41 full-time equivalency positions in its budget. Moreover, despite receiving $23 million to help deal with deferred maintenance that had been accumulating for some time, Odom’s department still calculates that the city’s parks confront roughly $50 million in deferred maintenance on assets like trails, roofing, paving and golf courses.
In the state parks, “when you’re talking about operational expenses, there’s really no state out there that’s able to cover all of them in the long term,” says Ledford. “And maintenance continues to be a big problem as well. Every state has millions of dollars of backlog in deferred maintenance.” Moreover, it is an even greater challenge to finance capital expenditures and any land acquisition expansion, adds Ledford.
As a result, “We try to do more with less, and continue to offer an affordable and enjoyable experience for outdoor recreation for the citizens and visitors to our state,” says Jennifer Head, budget administrator of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “But we aren’t able to provide the amenities that we used to, and we aren’t able to keep up with our maintenance.”
Some in Mississippi have suggested that the state privatize its parks, but the risks inherent in that approach are abundant, and it has failed to be approved so far. As Head warns, “Private companies tend to be for profit so (fees for park attendance and amenities) could rise, out of the control of the state.”
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