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Vermont State Parks Thrive Despite Tough Times

April 12, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Good weather and a slow economy may converge to help Vermont-owned campgrounds and parks, according to the Bennington (Vt.) Banner.

The director of parks for the state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Craig Whipple, in Bennington Thursday (April 8), said Vermont’s park areas are open all the time, but their “official” opening day is Memorial Day when they become fully staffed.

The slow economy creates a situation in which families are looking for cheaper vacations, which the parks can provide, Whipple said. About 50% of the parks budget comes from fees the department charges at campsites, while 30% comes from lease agreements with seven ski areas that occupy state land.

The remainder is covered by general fund taxes, Whipple said, something that is being constrained across-the-board in state government. He said the department has cut wherever it can, but has not been hit too hard because it does not take up much of the budget.

Whipple said there is a push statewide to encourage government entities, like the parks department, that can use other revenue streams to develop those sources and become more self-reliant.

He said Vermont’s parks are in better financial shape than in other states, such as New York, where direct state funding plays a larger role in the parks budget. New York, for instance, is contemplating closing many of its public recreation areas amid a budget crisis.

The Vermont parks department last year did close three campgrounds with low attendance numbers, but plans to open one again in a limited capacity, he said. “Vermont is trying to take the longer view here,” he said, adding that efforts have been concentrated on improvements and maintenance at 38 other sites. He said shutting down a site may meet short-term needs, but has a negative effect in the long run.

In last year’s capital budget, the Legislature approved $5.6 million for the state parks, said Whipple. “That’s the biggest capital appropriation the system has ever had,” Whipple said. “That’s to benefit the park system, the park visitors, and to stimulate the economy. It was really a state-level economic stimulus. We are frantically doing about 139 projects across the state at an average cost of $50,000.”

While large highway projects benefit large contractors, the smaller parks projects go to “mom and pop” companies.

He said the department has not raised fees recently, and is wary of doing so.

Marketing efforts have increased for Vermont’s parks, he said, the two main methods being its Web site, which he said sees 650,000 hits a year, and word of mouth. Otherwise, the parks rely on the state’s overall marketing initiatives to draw in visitors from out of state.

Whipple said no one is sure how many more visitors Vermont might see this summer because of the New York problems.

“All indications are that we are in for a wonderful season,” he said, adding that good weather last year has caused pre-bookings to increase this year.

The number of camping transactions is up by about 1%, he said, while total revenues are up by 10% for the fiscal year.

“Because the weather was so good last year, annual pass sales are up by 56%,” he said.

Whipple said the parks are seen from an entrepreneurial perspective. Efforts are made to invest in the facilities so more people use them and pay fees. Creative ways are thought of to bring people in, and the system is experiencing a growth in attendance, he said.

The heyday of Vermont’s parks was in the early 1970s, he said, when about 1 million visitors came through a year. Lately, the parks see about 730,000 per year. Most of the construction activity occurred in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, and the department is now planning on bringing cabins and other features up to modern standards, said Whipple.

Parks in southern Vermont are heavily used by out-of-state visitors, as much as 75% for Woodford State Park, while statewide, about 55% of park users are from other states.

The department is seeing more campers wanting more amenities and home comforts at campgrounds, such as sewer and electricity. The older people get, such as those in the huge baby boom generation, the less they enjoy sleeping on the ground, Whipple said.

Marketing for the parks has been directed toward families with young children, Whipple said, for a number of reasons. Mainly because those families are looking for cost-effective vacations.

The second reason is philosophical and based on a desire to connect young people with nature, Whipple said. Children across the country, even in Vermont, are spending less time outside, and problems such as attention deficit disorder, childhood obesity and diabetes have been connected to a lack of physical, outdoor, activity, he said.

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