As the economy has gotten worse, most Americans have been forced to tighten their belts and learn to do without a few things. Unfortunately, the annual family vacation has been one of those losses, with many opting to stay home and watch the Travel Channel. And a recent spike in gas prices has not made the situation better. The price of regular fuel is almost a dollar more per gallon than the low experienced last December. 

But, there is a sunny side, according to Business Lexington, Lexington Ky. 

Gas is still well off the $4 high from a year ago and as for the family vacation, Kentucky is home to one of the largest and arguably one of the best park systems in the United States. 

With 52 total parks scattered across the state, the drive for most Kentuckians would be under an hour. Of those, 17 are resorts complete with lodging and a restaurant; 35 are regular state parks, 11 are state historic sites and 24 are state “recreation” parks. 

Many of the parks contain hiking trails; lakes for boating, swimming and fishing; and campgrounds, not to mention the historical importance of many. In addition, the park system offers 400 different recreational programs over the course of a year. There are even 19 state park golf courses, four of which have been recognized nationally for their quality and affordability. 

Big Economic Impact 

The system also has one other component all its own: an enthusiastic boss that recognizes their value to the state tourism industry as well as the communities in which they are located. 

Department of Parks Commissioner Gerry van der Meer said the park system not only provides unique vacation and day-trip destinations, they also serve as strong economic engines, quoting a major study performed in 2002 by the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics. The report measured the economic impact the parks had on the state and found it to be approximately $350 million annually. 

“I think anyone who visits our parks will be impressed with their uniqueness. But as they say, numbers never lie. Our park system is the third highest revenue park system in America only behind California and New York, which have a few more people than we do here in Kentucky or in the surrounding area,” he said. “I think that is really a compliment to what out park system is. We see about 50% of our visitors are from Kentucky, so as much as 50% come from outside the state.” 

It doesn’t take but a few minutes with van der Meer to realize what a cheerleader he is for the system. He is a virtual encyclopedia of information on the historic importance of each site, and he also has a multitude of statistics at his fingertips made available through the National Association of State Park Directors, an organization in which Kentucky is a member. 

“One of the reasons I think it is unique is we do have the most lodges of any park system in America. We have the most rooms available, with about 850. As Kentuckians, we all like to say we’re the best, and we are in terms of our uniqueness and our variety,” he said. 

That variety includes Civil War sites such as Perryville Battlefield and Columbus-Belmont; the popular recognizable sites such as My Old Kentucky Home, Cumberland Falls and Fort Boonesborough; and little known sites with a rich history just waiting to be discovered by the masses, such as the Dr. Thomas Walker State Historical Site, which honors the first frontiersman in Kentucky, preceding Daniel Boone by 17 years. 

There are so many positives about the park system, but van der Meer notes that the parks are an aging system that is more than 75 years old and still need government revenue to operate, even with the high volume of money the parks generate. 

“Of our total expenditures – roughly $83 million – we still depend on $30 million of government funding. The opposite is true for almost all other states. They depend on approximately 65% of government funding for their total expenditures. The reason is, we generate the rest through our revenue from lodges, marinas, golf and things like that. We are the seventh most lean park system in America,” he said. 

While the economy has been a negative for most businesses, van der Meer said it has actually worked in their favor. 

Downturn Not All Bad 

“The recent downturn in the economy actually bodes well for us. The demand, especially in camping, has gone through the roof, and the campgrounds have done very well,” he said. “I think people are putting off going to the Gatlinburgs and Bransons and even amusement parks. Our occupancies have remained flat, and that is an important factor. Flat is good in today’s economy, and actually, we’re slightly up in total revenues.” 

Still, as with most other government agencies, the parks have tightened their belts by about 10%, including turning in vehicles and extending to the difficult decision of reducing hours, said van der Meer. 

Through promotions that have aided in getting people to the parks, the system has maintained revenues, van der Meer added. One of those promotions includes a $55 rate for lodge rooms from Sunday through Thursday at selected resort parks in June, and also from Aug. 3 through Sept. 30. 

While the system has managed well in a bad economy, it still needs more money to keep up. The $30 million it gets from the state budget has not changed in almost 10 years, even though the system has added eight more facilities, according to van der Meer. 

“We’re not out of the woods. To maintain these parks, we need more funding. We just simply do,” he said. 

That increase in funds would bring the parks up to the point, as van der Meer put it, of truly being the best in the country.