Tourism officials say $18M for maintenance and renovations at state parks already showing dividends

07/05/2017 04:45 PM

FRANKFORT – Had lawmakers not appropriated $18 million for improvements to Kentucky’s network of parks and resorts, Department of Parks Commissioner Donnie Holland said a third facility might have caught fire after a pair of blazes closed two other lodges in 2015 and 2016.

“Barren River was going to be probably the third one. Its switchgear was way outdated,” Holland told lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Tourism, Small Business and Technology on Wednesday, referring to Barren River State Resort Park’s electrical power supply.

“It could not be turned off and on correctly, and so we quickly with this money went in and replaced the switchgear at Barren River to prevent a catastrophe that was on the horizon.”

The two other park facilities that experienced fire damage have since reopened, with the May Lodge at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park closed for about a month in 2016 and Greenbo Lake State Resort Park’s Jesse Stuart Lodge shuttered for more than a year and a half before resuming operations in May.

Holland updated legislators on the tourism panel of progress made since their $18 million appropriation for state park maintenance in the 2016 biennial budget, about 69 percent of which has been spent or allocated for specific projects thus far.

Dollars tabbed for maintenance and renovation have been distributed evenly throughout the state, and Holland says visitors have taken notice. Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Don Parkinson said visitors spent 9,000 more nights at state park lodges in fiscal year 2017 compared to 2016, with the $50 million in revenue posted last fiscal year up $2.1 million from fiscal year 2016.

That’s partly thanks to the state advertising parks and resorts on the travel website Expedia, Holland says, adding that the parks department plans to increase its online footprint in the years ahead. Sales jumped 8 percent because of Expedia bookings, he said.

Holland said his department wanted customer satisfaction to reach a score of 50 after posting a 28 in fiscal year 2016.

“We were at 47 at the end of May, which is a 90 percent improvement in customer satisfaction ratings,” he said. “… We couldn’t have done any of this without the $18 million. I want to represent that one more time that that was the key to us making these turnarounds.”

Looking ahead, Holland suggested that lawmakers should consider upping the parks’ maintenance budget to avoid issues that have emerged in recent years.

At 2.2 percent of its budget, Holland said his department would get $17.2 million in a two-year spending plan. That’s up from $7.6 million currently over the biennium.

“If we don’t, it will continue to deteriorate,” Holland said of the state parks and resorts system. “It will just continue the downhill slide that we’ve seen over the last 15, 20 years or so.”

Parkinson also addressed decisions by a pair of unnamed conventions to cancel future plans in Louisville following California Attorney General Xavier Becerra banned state-funded travel to Kentucky over Senate Bill 17, which protects religious speech in schools.

Parkinson said he didn’t foresee additional tourism impacts due to the new law, adding his belief that SB 17 was being misinterpreted.

“We think it’s not as damaging to the state tourism business as they would like to present it,” he said during Wednesday’s committee meeting. “Their reading of that bill is very, very wrong in our opinion.

“If that continued, that would be something we’d have to address, but … we haven’t heard about any other place but there,” he added.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.