By Mannix Porterfield
Director Ken Caplinger considered the idea over the years but was adamant Tuesday that gambling is hardly the savior to rescue West Virginia’s struggling parks system.
Instead, Caplinger ran through a litany of potential dedicated revenues intended to raise $3 million annually to repair and maintain existing facilities at the state’s vast network of parks, without recommending any of them.
“And the Division of Natural Resources is not endorsing any of these,” he emphasized.
Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, raised the specter of adding gaming devices in the parks, recounting a recent visit to Reno, Nev., with slot machines stationed in restrooms.
“Is it feasible for us to perhaps partition a portion of a state park and have some sort of one-armed bandits that are more or less self-sufficient?” Paxton asked. “You don’t have to have a person in there all the time. You can have a camera on them.”
Caplinger said this would be a public policy for the Legislature, not the DNR, to make but that he personally opposes the idea.
If such a proposal were advanced, the parks director told the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Subcommittee, the reaction would be “such heartfelt, animated opposition.”
“I think you would find the public would be extremely divided on such an issue,” Caplinger said.
“Has it ever been contemplated? Yes, I’ve thought of it. Yes, I have. I’ve also thought of the potential angst and opposition, and the sentiment it would create in what are supposed to be family parks. And I’ve come to the conclusion it would probably be counter-productive. I personally am not supportive of it.”
The system consists of 49 areas, blanketing 11,642 developed acres and 176,000 undeveloped areas, that attract 6.6 million visitors each year. In the last year figures were kept, there were 800,000 overnight visitors at campsites and cabins. West Virginia offers 354 cabins, 800 lodge rooms and 2,000 campsites.
In addition, the system includes 1,169 trail miles and 1,496 buildings. Caplinger noted 189 of the structures are at least 75 years old and the average age is 40. Many were put up in the Great Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps workers.
Within only a few scant years, Caplinger said the parks system will need an infusion of $3 million for repairs and maintenance, and up to $16.4 million over five years.
Equipment he described as “ancient” is used by superintendents to get around parks and for trimming lawns.
A year ago, the parks system suffered the one-two punch of the devastating derecho, followed by the “Frankenstorm” that piled several feet of heavy, wet snow on much of the state, Caplinger told the panel.
“It wasn’t just the impact of when the lights were out,” he said.
“Our business suffered for months and months. It was just starting to rebound after the derecho when the big Super Storm Sandy hit. It was devastating. I’ve got to tell you. I look every day at our revenues. Our business still has not rebounded from pre-storm levels.”
Among possible sources of operating capital are soft drink and bottled water taxes, motor vehicle fees, sales taxes and severance on natural resources, and an entry fee at parks.
West Virginia ranks 18th nationally in self-sufficiency with a rating of 54 percent. The national average is 45.07 percent. Among parks that don’t impose an entry fee, only Alabama and Rhode Island outrank West Virginia.
“We’ve got to face the facts,” Caplinger said. “This is a 75-year-old system of this magnitude and size. Folks, we’re going to have to fix it up and protect this legacy and preserve it, or it’s going to fall down around our ears.”
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