State parks pack an economic punch that benefits area businesses.
By Tom Harvey
When the Redus clan shows up for their annual summer reunion at Meridian State Park, cash registers start ringing in nearby motels, grocery and hardware stores.
The reunion focus is summer fun and family bonding, not economics. But the annual Redus confab, now in its 27th year, vividly demonstrates the economic impact of state parks on surrounding communities. “My kids were little when we started going, and now they’re grown and have kids of their own, so now my grandkids are learning [about the park],” says Darla Kattner of Copperas Cove (a Redus on her mom’s side), who helps organize the reunions. “My kids know every inch of those woods up there. My son James is now 30, so he was four when we started going. I have a picture of our very first family reunion at Meridian State Park in 1980.”
About 60 to 80 family members usually come in the Redus bandwagon. Most of them stay in the state park, but some prefer the comforts of the Circle Motel in nearby Meridian, population 1,491. The family typically rents half a dozen rooms or so for the big weekend, and sometimes they spill over into other motels in nearby towns like Clifton.
“We spend a lot of money at the local grocery store,” Kattner says. “We buy ice, hamburger and hot dog buns, eggs and bacon.”
Meridian Ace Hardware, just two miles from the state park, has a special section devoted to state park campers. Here the Reduses once had to buy tools and parts to repair a popup camper and one year bought plastic tarps to keep rain out of the park’s screen shelters.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the traffic the state park generates is beneficial to our city and our business,” says store owner Dennis Clark. “We have a sporting goods department, and there we definitely cater to the park with rods and reels, camping equipment, stoves, fuel, lanterns and mantles. Because of the state park, we’re going to put in a propane fuel station here.”
These are some of the human faces behind the statistics compiled by Texas A&M University researchers in their 2005 report, “The Economic Contributions of Texas State Parks.” The Texas Coalition for Conservation, a nonprofit umbrella group formed to support parks and natural resource conservation, raised $100,000 to fund the study. The A&M team interviewed 11,709 visitors.
Researchers reported the 80 state parks in the study generated an estimated total of $793 million in sales, a $456 million impact on residents’ incomes and an estimated 11,928 jobs.
Significantly, only expenditures of park visitors from outside the host counties were measured. Spending by local residents and “casual” visitors attracted to the community for other reasons was excluded. The research thus measured only those economic benefits drawn to local areas by state parks.
For example, in the year it was studied, Mustang Island State Park cost $52,000 more to operate than was covered by revenue from entrance and camping fees — researchers called this the state’s net investment. In return, the park generated 47 jobs and more than $1.4 million in income for Nueces County residents.
Meridian State Park drew an estimated total of 49,221 out-of-county visitors, who spent $454,253 in Bosque County. For small, rural towns, that’s a chunk of change.
State parks near big urban populations understandably have bigger numbers. But even in large cities loaded with attractions, state parks still exercise a unique draw.
Researchers also studied the San Jacinto Battleground, east of Houston in La Porte, which includes the monument and the Battleship Texas. They found this historic site attracted an estimated 133,722 non-local, non-casual visitors who came to the area just to see this site. These folks were bigger spenders, dropping a whopping $5 million-plus in Harris County, mostly for lodging and auto transportation, but also for retail shopping, recreational equipment and food.
“Tourism is a major component of the Texas economy. Attractions drive tourism, and state parks operate more of these desired attractions than any other entity in the state,” says John Crompton, a professor with A&M’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences, who led the state park economic impact research.
To illustrate, Crompton points to another survey where tourists from outside Texas ranked the things that were most important to them. The top 10 (in descending order) were pretty scenery, historic sites, beautiful beaches, interesting wildlife, opportunities for adventure, museums, state parks, festivals or special events, lakes and boating activities, and good hiking trails.
Crompton says this list shows state parks have a lot of what people want. Further, he says, investing in maintaining and improving parks increases their economic value.
“State parks are analogous to retail stores,” he says. “Economic success depends on what happens inside the facility. Investments in park services and amenities thus mean more visitors and higher per capita expenditures, which equals higher revenues to the state and more jobs and income for local residents.”
The right mix of amenities is certainly part of what brings the Redus family back to Meridian every summer. Like many of Texas’ best-loved state parks, it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933-34, and many of the structures showcase the classic rustic charm wrought by CCC craftsmen. The park surrounds a 72-acre lake with good fishing. But it’s the group camping facilities that facilitate the Redus reunions.
“We have a big group camping area,” says Jody Lee, Meridian State Park superintendent. “It has a central dining hall surrounded by seven screen shelters and four water/electric campsites for trailers and motor homes. The dining hall has central air and heat, a deep freeze and commercial fridge. It stays pretty booked, especially on weekends. We have some groups who’ve been coming here for 30 years.”
Despite the park’s popularity, it has limited staffing and other resources to work with. The Redus family comes because they love the way the sun sets on the lake and the wind whispers in the trees (although Darla admits the air-conditioned dining hall can be nice on a summer day). But the facilities they use are not getting any younger.
“They have done some good things — putting in campsites for trailers, and new air-conditioning units and a ceiling for the dining hall,” Kattner says. “But really we keep the reunion there because the kids and grandkids all know the park.”
Meridian, like dozens of other state parks in recent years, has benefited from Proposition 8, a bond package approved by Texas voters in 2001 to fund critical repairs to state parks and other facilities. Early this decade, Meridian got a new wastewater system with new underground lines, and a couple of years later was able to replace the park’s underground water supply line network — big-ticket repairs that would have been difficult to fund without Proposition 8 money. Still, the state park system strains to keep operating, mainly because it is a labor-intensive enterprise where salaries are the biggest ongoing expense.
“The biggest funding/operational issue at this site is lack of personnel,” Lee says. “We continue to dramatically increase state park revenue and visitation, but remain static on personnel. The park operates a 42-site overnight facility, which includes one of the largest-capacity group camps in the state. It has to be operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and there are only four classified employees to do this.”
They may be few in number, and they may not have a big budget to keep up the facilities, but the state park staff appears to do well with what they have.
“We had an emergency situation once where my daughter reacted to some medication,” Kattner says. “The park ranger was up there fast and got an ambulance, and he kept on coming back and checking on her. They were really good.”
Looking at photos taken over the decades, Kattner can recall the number of new babies each year, along with the tally of scraped knees, errant fish hooks and preteen hijinks. You won’t find numbers like these in an economic report, but the memories they represent are treasured by the Redus family. Whether enjoying a large family reunion or a weekend with close friends, loyal state park visitors know that time spent in the great outdoors — and away from the rat race — is priceless.