NC report suggests closing state parks in winter
Posted February 14, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina could save millions of dollars a year by closing the state's 39 outdoor parks and recreation areas to the public during winter months, the legislature's fiscal watchdog agency said Tuesday.
The Program Evaluation Division's report said closing the sites from December through February could save about $2.4 million annually, but it recommended getting more detailed visitor counts before any decision is made.
The study was received by a legislative oversight committee and sent to a subcommittee for further examination. It was mandated by the legislature last year as Republican leaders continue to look at how to reduce or consolidate government costs and shift more operations to the private sector or nonprofits.
North Carolina spends about $19 million a year to operate state parks and recreation areas.
Lewis Ledford, director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said closing a state park would be easier said than done. Most aren't designed to keep people out, he said, and trying to close them for the winter could pose safety and security risks for people and facilities.
"We have to make sure that parks are being operated in a safe manner for public visitation," Ledford said. "When you have waterfalls and cliffs and riptides at the seashore, you've got to make sure that you're providing places that are safe for the visiting public."
Donna and David Webster said they ride their bikes year-round in William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, and they said a "closed" sign wouldn't be much of a deterrent to them.
"There's no way to close this place. We'd just go down to Reedy Creek (Road) and enter off of Reedy Creek because there's no way to close this place," Donna Webster said.
The state report also suggested shutting down the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City and the Richard Caswell Memorial in Kinston once the remnants of a Civil War gun boat there are moved to downtown Kinston. Seven other locations could be closed on Sundays and Mondays to cut operating expenses at attractions with high costs and low visitor traffic, according to the report.
Those moves could save about $2 million annually, the report states.
The Elizabeth City and Kinston sites were cited as having high per-visitor costs to the state. The Caswell memorial had barely 10,000 visitors during the fiscal year ending last June — the lowest among the state's 23 historic sites, according to the report. The Museum of the Albemarle had fewer than 72,000 visitors during the same period, ranking it second to last among state museums.
The Department of Cultural Resources, which runs most of the museums and historic sites, opposed most of the recommendations, saying the agency already has seen a 25 percent spending reduction over the past few years due to budget cuts.
The Albemarle museum's 74,000-square foot building is a key element of branding Elizabeth City and its tourism efforts, said Melanie Soles, the department's chief deputy secretary, and preserving its artifacts means not all of the savings would be realized. Some budget-writers recommended last year that the museum be closed, but the provision was removed from the final spending bill.
"Do you want to see that building boarded up for whatever period of time?" Soles asked the committee, adding that "closing this museum would in fact be disastrous."
Soles said the historic sites targeted for reduced operating hours would actually see only about $6,700 in state savings annually because so many of their costs are connected to employee salaries. Closing the Alamance Battlefield site would only save $1,740. Essentially, Soles said, the only savings would come from fewer "toilet flushes and some light bulbs turned off."
Oversight committee member Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, pointed out the Battleship North Carolina exhibit in downtown Wilmington gets no state funds.
"Nobody can argue it is truly a world-class historic experience," Lewis said after the meeting, but other locations "are getting subsidized $15, $20 per head just to remain open. I do think we have a fiscal responsibility to make the parks run as efficiently as we can."
Parks and other attractions provide a significant economic bump to the state. The North Carolina zoo had 741,000 visitors last year, and it generated $146.5 million in expenditures in 2011, according to an outside study. State parks and recreation areas recorded a record 14.25 million visits in 2011, led by Jockey's Ridge State Park in Dare County, the state Division of Parks and Recreation said.
Jeffrey Crow, head of the department's Office of Archive and History, urged lawmakers to think about the benefits the historic sites and museums bring that can't be quantified in dollars and cents.
"History provides an important line between the past, present and the future," Crow said. "The hundreds of thousands of school children who visit our state historic sites and museum will one day be the future leaders of this state."
Donna Webster said state parks also provide an outlet for people, especially when they're cooped-up inside during the winter.
"It's one of Raleigh's treasures, and I'd hate to see it closed during the winter," she said of Umstead State Park. "We would just be so bummed if we didn't have a place to come, even in the winter."
The report's authors examined dozens of public attractions operated by the departments of Cultural Resources and Environment and Natural Resources but determined it didn't make financial sense to consolidate oversight of the attractions under one roof.
The study also recommended that the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro and three state aquariums consider outsourcing more operations and expand partnerships with outside booster groups to reduce their reliance on state funds. Some states such as Georgia and Virginia are using corporate sponsorships to boost revenues and reduce shortfalls, the report said.
The subcommittee will report back to the committee in March with potential recommendations for the full committee, said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, a committee co-chairwoman. The full legislature would have to approve any changes.