April 13, 2019 10:00:01 PM
TUPELO -- Mississippi state parks are attracting a steady flow of visitors, but tight budgets are creating problems for maintenance.
Officials say about 1 million people have visited the state parks for each of the past five years.
The number of full-time park employees at the 25 parks has been sharply reduced in recent years, from 193 workers to 110, The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.
Jennifer Head, the state parks' liaison to the state Legislature, said the parks need improvements to water and sewer systems and electrical upgrades in RV camps. She also says more than 600 structures, including cabins and pavilions, are "in desperate need of repair or replacement."
Head and officials with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks were hopeful that lawmakers this year would reverse a trend that over the last decade has nearly cut the state park budget in half.
While one funding bill provided $4 million for dam repairs, officials hoped an amendment by Democratic Sen. J.P. Wilemon of Belmont would provide money for improvements at state parks. The original amendment sought $10 million. By the time the politicking was over, the amount had dropped to $397,000, and that was earmarked for costs of the Capitol Police.
In the end, the Legislature set aside $1 million for Buccaneer State Park in Waveland and another $500,000 for Tishomingo State Park to repair and renovate infrastructure and cabins and a suspension bridge.
Other parks will have to make do with what they have to deal with infrastructure problems and maintenance issues.
"We don't have the operating budget to do the deferred maintenance," Head said. "Our general fund keeps getting cut, so we don't have a capital fund for the maintenance, either."
Officials know one bad review online could hurt a park.
"If someone goes to the park and has a bad experience, they can go to social media," said Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks public affairs director Warren Strain. "That can further damage the image of the park."
Under a five-year partnership with Toyota Mississippi, Tombigbee State Park outside of Tupelo has enjoyed a surge in popularity and publicity.
Toyota donated roofs for the lodge, bathhouse and dining hall. Along with volunteer work days, the company helped install split rail fences and stain them. Toyota employees also helped replace roofs on smaller picnic structures.
"After a Toyota work day is shown on television and in the paper, we'll have folks come to the park and say, 'I've been living here 40 years and never knew this place was here,'" said park manager Jeff Rosamond.
The park has eight cabins. One is a cottage. Another cabin was recently renovated to include a modern kitchen, complete with granite countertops. But it is the other six that draw the most attention and are in need of the most work. The six were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Because they are on a national historic register, work has to follow historical styles and federal guidelines, which increases the costs.
Trace State Park manager Josh Massey knows about infrastructure problems. The water level of the 565-acre (229-hectare) lake was lowered in 2016 because of concerns with the levee. Additional landslides on the levee forced the main lake to be completely drained in 2017.
"We've got the biggest lake in the area for skiing, jet skiing and fishing," Massey said. "The lake is the heart of the park and right now, the heart is not beating. On a daily basis, we have folks asking where the lake is and when will it be back to normal."
The lack of fishing and skiing has taken its toll of the park's bottom line. Revenue has been slashed by about two-thirds. The number of employees has taken a similar hit.
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