HARRISBURG PA--Rising costs and stagnant income is leaving Pennsylvania’s 121 parks with a projected deficit of about $500 million to address ongoing maintenance needs, a state official revealed recently.
Paul Zeph, head planner of the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks, went before members of the House Tourism Committee on Jan. 15 and discussed the Parks for All plan, which was recently refreshed after last going under the microscope in 1992.
In his testimony to the House panel, Zeph touched on a number of issues related to state parks, but the one piece of insight that garnered the most attention was the anticipated shortfall. When Parks for All was last updated, Zeph pointed out budgetary deficits at the time hovered around $100 million.
“We’re scratching our heads on how to go forward,” Zeph said. “We may have to shut down some facilities, we may have to make some parks a little more remote. We’re not sure, but we are identifying that we have a need.”
In 2017, the Bureau of State Parks conducted a survey, which yielded about 14,000 responses, and Zeph said he thought the feedback could serve as an important guide in how to proceed.
Pennsylvania residents have long enjoyed visiting state parks for free – the thinking, Zeph said, being the cost is covered through taxes – and there was minimal support for imposing an admission cost at this point.
Another middle-of-the-road scenario, calling for scaling down amenities at some of the state’s lesser used parks and giving them more of a rustic designation could also be on the table.
“There was some mild support for that,” Zeph said.
Several committee members weighed in on the issue. State Rep. Dan Moul, R-Gettysburg, questioned if at least one of the state’s larger parks could have a ramped up, amenity-rich emphasis on tourism that would extend beyond the park system’s current traditional base of day-trippers.
“We do have some state parks that have big enough lakes,” Moul said. “There’s a way we could bring more people into the commonwealth and have them spend money.”
But Zeph said such a scenario could lead to unforeseen circumstances. Other states, he said, have encountered financial losses in the long run for similar proposals.
“The bigger you get, the more the commonwealth winds up paying for these kinds of facilities,” Zeph said.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Hermitage, said he was concerned with the rising deficit of parks maintenance. With inflation taken into account, Longietti said he is concerned the figure will only rise in the years ahead.
“It’s frustrating. It’s a conundrum,” Zeph said in response, pointing out there are no easy answers to the questions.
As for the survey itself, Zeph said there was one aspect of the responses that jumped out at him as the results were tabulated.
“I was surprised by the uniformity of responses,” he said. “By and large, people seem pretty happy with the system.”
Further discussion of the deficit and other aspects of the Parks for All plan is anticipated as 2020 gets underway.
“We need to mine a little deeper on some of these questions,” Zeph said. “We do have more work to do. This isn’t the end. But this has given us a good starting point.”
published here with permission of The Center Square