Saturday, January 28, 2012

Haley to state's children: Want state parks? Pay up.

If you live in NORTH Carolina, your access to all of North Carolina's state parks is absolutely free. Even after the new conservative legislature imposed some fees for some services last year, admission remains free statewide.

That's because in North Carolina, people regard some spaces, programs and services as necessary to promoting a high quality of life for all its citizens. So North Carolinians support those spaces, programs and services with tax dollars, and just as public libraries are free to visit, state parks are free to visit, too.

It's no wonder North Carolina ranks consistently high for its quality of life.

This is especially beneficial to North Carolina's working poor, and their children. Where else can they go for outdoor recreation, not to mention for sheer enjoyment of natural beauty, if they don't live happen to live at the country club?

But here in South Carolina, the working poor and their children -- indeed, all of us -- have to fork over several dollars per person just to get inside, which means the working poor and their children likely don't go to their state parks.

We have some beautiful state parks (and state historic sites) and a dedicated -- and tiny -- staff of park rangers and interpreters. I can see charging out-of-state visitors a fee to enjoy our parks. That makes perfect sense. But our own citizens? Don't the parks belong to us?

Now, even though admission fees pay for 83 percent of the cost of running our state parks already, Governor Nikki Haley says the parks cost too much of the state treasury. Rather than making our state parks a perk of living in South Carolina -- where perks are few and far between for the less-than-wealthy -- her goal is to make the parks completely self-sufficient. That means charging everyone -- even South Carolinians, as if we're just customers in our own state -- more. And if they happen, one day, to start turning a profit for the state, so much the better...

After a yearlong review, South Carolina's 47 state parks will remain within the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism with a goal of making park operations pay for themselves by the end of next year.

When Gov. Nikki Haley took office last year, she asked for a review of the parks system with an eye toward whether the parks might be more efficiently administered by the state Department of Natural Resources.

After traveling from the mountains to the sea visiting all the state's parks, PRT Director Duane Parrish recently presented the governor with a report on the status of the park system. The park system began during the Great Depression with 15 parks carved out of the wild by workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Ah, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program initiated under Franklin Roosevelt to create jobs for American's working poor, to help the nation get out of an economic downturn. Where have good ideas like that gone today?

The 80,000-acre state park system features 3,000 campsites, 144 cabins, 80 hotel rooms, two golf courses, and more than 300 miles of hiking and riding trails.

The report makes four main recommendations:

-- That state parks remain under PRT to better market and develop the parks.

Marketing in North Carolina: Letting people know that their state parks are free and open to the public, almost every day of the year.

Marketing in South Carolina: Letting people know that if you want free state parks, move to North Carolina. Ours cost money to visit. Poor folks might want to stay home, put some lawn chairs in the yard and string some tin cans together for the kiddies to play with.

-- That steps be taken so park operations, which last year cost about $24 million to operate, are self-sufficient by the end of 2013.

Self-sufficient: Run like a business, so that when costs go up, you either raise admission prices and other fees, or you fire some park staff, or both. Making parks self-sufficient brings us one step closer to privatizing them altogether.

-- That deferred maintenance needs be prioritized and other sources of money be found to pay for such maintenance.

"Other sources" means not public dollars. Spending public dollars to maintain public parks might send the wrong message; for example, that all of South Carolina's citizens are welcome to attend, when we all know...

-- That revenue bonds be considered for capital projects, such as water attractions at state parks that will produce additional revenue.

Which means Disney-fication of the state parks. Can you see it? Long lines at the Swamp Fox roller coaster ride? Maurice Bessenger could get the state concessions contract: Piggies in the Parks!

The report also found the state's parks have almost $155 million in deferred maintenance needs. It found five must be accomplished within five years to avoid closing some areas because of safety concerns.

Translation: We've done such a poor job of funding needed maintenance, repairs and renovations with existing revenues that our some of our state park features are in danger of being completely closed.

Oh, well. Those who live close enough to the border can cross and enjoy North Carolina's state parks. This year's theme: "Naturally Wonderful."

You know what you could do for free in South Carolina?

Here the past, present and future of BMW come together in a one-of-a-kind building. See the cars, the speed, the innovation–all for free in the only BMW museum in North America. The Zentrum is more than just a museum; it’s a meeting and events center, a cafe, a gallery and a history lesson–all wrapped into one ultimate experience. Located next to the only BMW manufacturing plant in the U.S., this unique place offers something for everyone.

Thanks to massive corporate tax breaks -- courtesy of you and me -- BMW allows us to come and visit their museum in Greenville.

Poor folks, load up the kids and come to Greenville. And make it a two-fer! Greenville's close enough to the North Carolina border that you might spend half a day at some North Carolina state parks, for only the price of gas.

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