Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to revive Mississippi’s state parks, which have suffered from years of budget cuts and neglected maintenance, according to The Meridian Star.
But the price tag to bring the state’s 25 parks (three of which are run by local governments) up to snuff is an estimated $147 million. Plus, millions more a year would be needed to keep them up — prompting discussion of privatization and a search for other options, with a tax to fund parks likely a nonstarter in the Legislature.
State parks spending has been cut by nearly 60% since 2000, and staffing by 70%. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks lacks manpower and money for even routine maintenance. The initial legislative budget recommendation for the coming year would cut MDWFP another $900,000, or by about 15%.
“We are at a crossroads,” said Robert Taylor, chairman of the Mississippi Commission of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “We’ve got to fund them to fix the crumbling infrastructure — have parks we can be proud of — or look at different things. But something has got to change.”
Most of the state’s 600 structures in its parks are in need of some repair — from major to minor, said Jennifer Head, parks director for MDWFP.
This comes as other states cash in on state park tourism, with the COVID-19 pandemic driving demand for RV-ing, camping and outdoor vacationing and recreation.
Mississippi receives about 1 million visitors to its parks each year. Arkansas state parks attract nearly 8.5 million visitors a year and serves as the state’s largest tourism draw, generating more than $1 billion a year for that state’s economy. Alabama sees nearly 5 million visitors to its parks annually, with an economic impact of about $375 million.
In Arkansas, parks are funded through a dedicated “conservation tax.” In Alabama, parks are 90% self-funded through fees and rentals. Mississippi parks lack an adequate dedicated funding source.
Alabama privatized one of its state parks that it had closed because of budget cuts. A few states have sold park land or solicited large private developments.
“We have a jewel in the rough,” Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told Mississippi Today. “But we don’t have our parks up to the standards we would require for our people to use them, and further, they are not up to the standards of surrounding states which have more amenities … We are leaving money on the table with the tourism industry, and this is part of the face of Mississippi. People come through, see a park that’s run down and they can’t hook their RV up, and they get the same impression about us.
“It’s time for us to take a clear, long look at this,” Hosemann said.
But Hosemann noted the state doesn’t have an extra $147 million on hand to make repairs.
Sen. Neil Whaley, chairman of the Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks committee, held a committee hearing on the issue in late December. He said lawmakers are still in fact-gathering mode and are looking at all options.