The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

September 9, 2013

Parks director shares revenue-raising ideas

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Father Time has caught up with West Virginia’s expansive and popular park system.

And with millions needed in repairs and overhauls, just where does the Division of Natural Resources come up with dedicated sources of revenue to put the parks back on their feet?

During last month’s legislative interim meetings, Parks Director Ken Caplinger tossed out some approaches taken in other states, careful to emphasize the DNR isn’t making any recommendations, since this is a policy decision for lawmakers.

Among money-raisers elsewhere are taxes on bottled water and soft drinks, severance taxes on natural resources, entry or parking fees, tobacco taxes, and taxes on sporting goods associated with camping, such as cook stoves, sleeping bags and tents.

“This is food for thought,” Caplinger told Finance Subcommittee B. “I can’t say I’m speaking for the DNR and advocating these.”

The DNR oversees 35 parks, five wildlife areas and two rail trails, he said, noting that 189 buildings are 75 years old or older, put up in the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

On average, a park building is 42 years old.

“They’re not spring chickens any more,” Caplinger said.

A recent study by the legislative auditor’s office showed the parks system needs $3 million annually for maintenance and equipment replacement, he said.

At Little Beaver State Park, outside Beckley, the superintendent uses a 1998 model truck that is deemed unfit for highway use, Caplinger said.

One year ago, the air conditioning/heating lines at Pipestem, installed when the park was built in 1970, erupted near midnight and triggered an explosion that started a fire. Sixty-five people in the lodge were evacuated but were allowed back in when the fire was extinguished — or so they assumed.

“People were escorted back in the building and the equipment erupted again,” Caplinger told the legislators.

“We narrowly averted a tragic situation there. If it were not for alert security guards, it could have been really, really bad. We need about $1 million to replace those lines.”

Without $1 million to invest in repairs, Caplinger said the Pipestem lodge will have to be closed.

What’s more, a massive outdoor swimming pool on the upper level is crumbling, he said.

“Swimming pools leak when they’re 45 years old,” Caplinger said.

“That building is dissolving like an ice cube. If it’s not replaced in about three years, we’re going to have to tear it down.”

Similarly, a pool atop the pro shop at Twin Falls State Park likely has about one to two years left, unless repairs are undertaken, he said.

West Virginia’s parks boast a self-sufficiency rating of about 54 percent, compared to the national level of 45 percent. Chief Logan, in fact, enjoyed a $500,000 profit.

Caplinger cautioned the lawmakers that the next figures out likely will be bleaker, given the devastating effects of the June 29, 2012, power-killing derecho and last October's Frankenstorm that dumped tons of heavy, wet snow on the state.

“Those storms killed our business,” he said.

The park system employs 433 full-time staffers and some 1,000 hourly ones during the summer months.

Given the 7.5 percent budget cut imposed on state agencies, Caplinger said the parks system has 28 full-time vacancies.

One panelist, Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, suggested efforts be intensified to get more visitors. Last year, the system hosted 6.6 million.

“We get those numbers up, we close the gap,” Cowles said.

Caplinger said the system spends a mere $296,000 on advertising.

“We don’t advertise nearly enough,” he said. “We can do better. We can bring more people in.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com