Ala. State Parks Get Major Upgrades
Painters, carpenters and other construction workers are putting the finishing touches on 10 new cottages at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, Ala., that feature stone fireplaces, LCD televisions and spiral staircases, according to the Times Daily, Florence, Ala.
Park Superintendent Tim Haney said the $3.4 million construction project is part of a new era in Alabama’s state parks that began in the late 1990s.
“We’ve finally got some money to do some major projects in our parks. We used to struggle to just fix things when they broke. We didn’t have the money to do the kind of maintenance we needed to and definitely didn’t have the money to build anything new,” Haney said.
Work is also under way at the park on new boat slips that can accommodate boats up to 70 feet long.
A $110 million bond issue Alabama voters approved in 1998 allowed the state to make repairs at state parks and to construct new cabins, cottages and other buildings. The 1970s-era hotel at Joe Wheeler Park was renovated in the winter of 1998.
“The bond issue has allowed us to do a lot of work. Here, we’ve been able to build the new lakeside cottages; we’re going to build 26 new boat slips at our marina, upgrade our campground and renovate our golf course with bond issue money. There is no way we would be able to do that work without the bond issue money,” Haney said.
The swimming pool at the Joe Wheeler Park was renovated this year.
Darren Smith, author of “Parks Directory of the United States,” ranks Joe Wheeler as one of the three best parks in Alabama.
Smith, of Pompano Beach, Fla., said the listing was based on recommendations from state parks officials. Joe Wheeler also is included as one of the best three parks in Alabama to visit in the spring.
Smith’s listings of the top state parks around the United States and Canada are on the www.about.com website.
Meanwhile, a newly renovated hotel and convention center at Lake Guntersville State Park is scheduled to open this fall. Work is under way on renovating the hotel and convention center at Lakepoint State Park in Eufaula. A lodge at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville that burned in the 1940s has been restored with money from the bond issue. Numerous cabins and cottages have been built, marinas renovated and golf courses enhanced at state parks throughout Alabama. Campgrounds at 10 of the parks, including Joe Wheeler, will be renovated beginning later this year.
A new lodge is planned at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores to replace one destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The park’s lodge, which had fallen into disrepair before the hurricane, was already targeted for replacement. Lawsuits aimed at blocking state plans to enter into a partnership with Auburn University to operate the new motel and to prevent the state from building an oceanfront hotel that competes with private business have delayed the start of construction. State officials expect to spend about $100 million for a new lodge and convention center at the seaside park.
Mark Easterwood, director of Alabama State Parks, is hopeful the lawsuits can be resolved and construction can begin soon at Gulf State Park.
Of Alabama’s 23 state parks, six have a motel, 11 have family cottages or cabins and 22 allow camping.
Haney said the boon in construction and renovation in recent years has allowed Alabama’s state parks to remain competitive with other parks around the country.
“When people visit a park, they want it to be nice, they want things to work and want the people who work there to be friendly,” Haney said. “We’ve got friendly people, but the rest of it takes money. We’ve now got the money we need to do the things we need to be doing to keep our parks up to date.”
The planned renovation of the campground at Joe Wheeler Park includes installing new utilities and increasing the size of the campsites to accommodate larger recreational vehicles.
After the campground renovation, the golf course is next on the park’s to-do list, Haney said. Plans call for cart paths to be built and the tee boxes and greens to be renovated.
Joe Wheeler is one of six state parks with a golf course.
Smith said it’s a plus for a state parks system to be diverse in its offerings.
Alabama has a mix of parks with coastal parks, parks on inland lakes and rivers, historical parks, parks in mountain regions and parks with golf courses, hiking trails, wildlife watching areas and other recreational opportunities.
Operating Budget Lags
While the bond issue has provided money for renovating park facilities, Alabama’s operating budget for its parks lags far behind many Southeastern states.
Alabama spends about $30 million per year to operate its parks, said Thomas Dunlap, chief accountant for the park system. In contrast, Kentucky spends $84.5 million, Florida $77.4 million, and Tennessee $68.5 million, he said.
“We don’t receive a dime of general fund money for our parks,” Dunlap said. The lion’s share of the money Alabama spends to operate state parks is generated by the parks, he said.
Tennessee provided $33.9 million from its general fund budget to its state parks this year. Kentucky’s budget provided $29.7 million to its parks. Georgia’s state parks received $18.8 million in general fund money this year, Dunlap said.
California, with an annual operating budget for state parks of $466.3 million, including $101 million in general fund money, spends the most on its parks.
If Alabama’s state parks received general fund money to supplement the money generated at the parks, the park system could do much more to improve and maintain the parks, Dunlap said.
With the motel at Gulf State Park destroyed by the hurricane and Lake Guntersville State Park’s lodge closed for renovation, annual revenue for the state parks is down $4 million this year, Dunlap said.