Long-neglected park system will take years to upgrade

Roman Nose State Park, near Watonga, is one of the state's seven original parks. (Kevin Hassler / Enid News & Eagle)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma tourism officials are developing a strategic plan to tackle the state’s vast, but long-neglected park system, the deputy director of the Tourism and Recreation Department told lawmakers Thursday at a hearing.

But Gino DeMarco warned of difficult decisions ahead for officials as they decide how to manage the crumbling infrastructure suffering from decades of neglect.

DeMarco said when he joined the state agency earlier this year, he visited 30 state parks in six days to see everything firsthand.

He said he found a few “shining gems,” but those jewels kind of stood out due to an unfortunate abundance of “below average” things in disrepair, he said.

“They’re in horrible shape,” he said.

Some things were rotting. Others were falling down.

Still, Oklahoma state parks draw about 9.3 million visitors a year, he said. Beavers Bend and Lake Murray get about 3 million of those tourists. Even the smallest parks attract tens of thousands of visitors.

The state’s park system encompasses 60,000 acres. It includes more than 500 buildings, and thousands of pieces of furniture. The system owns hundreds of vehicles, trucks and pieces of heavy equipment. It operates seven golf courses and is responsible for hundreds of miles of roads along with signage, parking lots and boat ramps. It also manages five dams and more than 10,000 acres of forest.

The parks generate about $26 million in revenue, primarily from camping and overnight lodging. DeMarco said officials are looking at how much more revenue they can raise by charging for park upkeep. For example, he said many visitors from Texas don’t pay anything.

“In the end, it’s going to take more money to keep parks open” and provide the same service, he said.

DeMarco said everything needs annual maintenance to keep from degrading further, and the system will need funding to make needed improvements.

“We need fewer things that we’re spending money on,” he said.

He said he doesn’t anticipate closing any state parks, but things inside parks likely will have to be torn down or closed.

“There’s going to be people that are really unhappy that their favorite attraction at their state park no longer exists,” DeMarco said.

For years, officials have complained about the costs and crumbling infrastructure resulting from years of deferred maintenance, but tourism officials — for perhaps the first time — began Thursday to unveil the framework for a strategic plan to tackle the problem.

State Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, said he’s worked with the tourism and recreation agency previously on budgeting. He said there really has been no monetary strategy other than giving every park a little bit of cash so that nobody complains.

DeMarco said the agency’s plan is going to examine completing improvement projects across the entire state, like replacing all bathrooms in a year rather than just three stalls at a time to maximize results.

State Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said he’d heard reports that parks officials already were thinking about closing the Sequoyah State Park Golf Course in Hulbert. He pressed DeMarco for answers and asked whether lawmakers would be consulted first.

DeMarco said every single asset is under consideration, but no final decisions have been made. He said officials also are looking at possibly outsourcing some state-run operations like marinas or equestrian stables.

State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, said this is an example of how “fraught” some decisions are going to be for the public and lawmakers as the state moves forward.

DeMarco said the repairs are not going to be quick.

“There’s no chance we’re going to fix this in the next year,” DeMarco said. “There’s really no chance we’re going to fix this in the next five years.”

It’s going to take decades to get assets back to what the public deserves, he said.

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