Park attendance up, funding down

Thomas Gallick

How we’re doing: Effects of the recession

Local Kent residents Dave Wolin and Carol Klohn walk their dog, Mimi, around the Portage Hike and Bike Trail yesterday. There are ten park locations in the Portage County Park District. Jessica M. Kanalas | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

This story is the first of a weeklong series about how the national economic recession has affected local businesses and services, as well as public policy at the state and local levels.

As economic reality puts greater strain on Ohioans’ pocketbooks, many are discovering state and local parks as cheap vacation and recreation spots.

The parks themselves, however, are feeling the sting of the recession through statewide budget cuts, even as park attendance goes up.

Every state park region in Ohio received a 3.5 percent budget cut this year and dealt with an 8 percent increase in the amount of campers alone from last year. Jean Backs, public information section manager for Ohio State Parks, said the figures were even higher at the beginning of the summer.

“We were at about (a 15 percent increase in campers) earlier this season,” Backs said. “Through the end of August, it’s usually a little lower and camping slows down.”

Backs said the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is doing what it can, including moving staff to work at the most visited state park sites, in order to create the best experience for the majority of visitors.

“We’ve tried to take all of our budget cuts behind the scenes,” Backs said. “We’re trying to put a majority of our resources into times and places with the most visitors for as minimal an impact as possible to our customers.”

Like at the state park system, attendance is up at local parks, although the budget situation may be even worse.

Christine Craycroft, director of the Portage Park District, said funding for parks in Portage County has been hard to come by in recent years. A proposed levy that would have raised $1.7 million yearly for the district over a 10-year period failed last November for the fifth time.

“We have a smaller budget than any of the county park districts around,” Craycroft said. “We’re wondering next year if we’re going to have our doors open.”

According to the Portage Park District Web site, its annual operating budget is “approximately $175,000.”

Craycroft said the Portage County Parks District has not yet implemented official counts, but that in her opinion park usage has definitely increased this year.

Elaine VanHoose, director of Ravenna’s Parks and Recreation Department, agreed that financial times are tough for local parks.

“We’re being cautious, let’s just say,” VanHoose said. “We need to be diligent and maintain our parks as finances (worsen). We’re seeing increases in need and doing what we can to maintain a safe environment.”

One possible place for parks to look for additional funding is from the federal government. Ohio is using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to create the Recovery Conservation Corps., a program that provides maintenance work for individuals aged 16 to 24 to help with workloads at state parks.

The state has provided $2 million dollars for the program, which included painting and roofing work at Tinkers Creek State Park in Streetsboro as one of the its accomplishments on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Web site.

Both VanHoose and Craycroft said that their departments were not yet receiving any help from the stimulus package.

“We made a couple of early attempts (to apply for aid), but we weren’t show-ready enough,” Craycroft said.

Both state and local park officials said they hoped increased usage of parks and recreational facilities will translate to increased interest and volunteering. Craycroft said she was specifically interested in involving more Kent State students in the volunteer process.

VanHoose said the one positive she could see coming out of the economic downturn for parks would be citizens discovering or rediscovering their love of nature.

“(People are) finding out the enjoyment of what’s in your backyard,” VanHoose said. “You don’t need to travel to have a good time. The economy is making people look closer to home.”

Contact public affairs reporter Tom Gallick at [email protected].