Legislative Panel Briefed on Future of Kentucky State Parks

It’s no walk in the park figuring out how to pay to maintain Kentucky’s 49 state parks.

“We have had a long history of our parks being how folks identify with the state of Kentucky,” Sen. Joe Bowen (R-Owensboro) said while chairing yesterday’s meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on State Government. “They represent our heritage in a lot of cases. And they are certainly our billboard to the rest of the country.”

Committee members asked to be updated on the future of state parks after Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary William Landrum III testified before them last month that Kentucky was leasing some state park attractions it could no longer afford to operate.

Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Don Parkinson testified that despite the fact that the General Assembly appropriated $18 million last biennium and $20 million this biennium, the park system has $240 million in deferred maintenance. That term is used to describe the postponement of buildings and equipment upkeep due to a lack of money.

Parkinson said he wanted to clarify Kentucky’s lease agreements involving state parks. He said the agreements were designed to keep the parks open. Parkinson said he wants to avoid closing more than just the four golf courses shuttered since 2006. Department of Parks Commissioner Donnie Holland testified he was saddened when one of the courses, located at Kenlake State Resort Park in Hardin, closed because that is where he learned to play golf.

Holland said collaborating with local governments to keep attractions open was not a new approach. Similar agreements have been reached in prior administrations. For example, the state partnered with Danville in 2012 to help maintain Constitution Square Historic Site, the birthplace of Kentucky’s statehood. A similar agreement was struck in 2010 when Owensboro took over Ben Hawes Park.

An example of the current administration’s collaboration efforts involve Calvert City Airport, located within Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park. The city is building hangers to accommodate 10 private aircrafts and adding aviation fuel service. Holland said the goal is to re-establish the facility’s Federal Aviation Administration “airport” designation. It had fallen in such disrepair that the FAA had downgraded it to “airstrip” status.

Other partnerships include one with Nelson County to repair the amphitheater at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, home of “The Stephen Foster Story.” The longest-running outdoor drama was threatened when the amphitheater was condemned, Holland said.

A similar agreement was struck with Prestonsburg when the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park amphitheater was also condemned. The city also leased the shuttered swimming pool and plans to reopen it next summer.

Holland said other attractions saved by local governments stepping forward include the boat dock at Lake Malone State Park in Dunmor and the golf course at Kincaid Lake State Park in Falmouth.

Rep. Mark Hart (R-Falmouth) said Pendleton County sublet the golf course to a private operator who broke even by July. “That has been a bigger success story than we had anticipated,” he said. “The golf course is back up to par.”

Holland said he is now working with London to use its restaurant tax revenue to take over the operations of Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park.

Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London) whose district includes the Levi Jackson park, asked whether the operating agreements restrict logging or mining on the leased parks. Tourism Cabinet Deputy Counsel Jean Bird, who also testified, said the agreements contain conservation easements restricting the use of the property to a park.

“If the land ceases to be used as a park, it will revert automatically to the commonwealth,” she said. “We will do all that we can do to preserve the land, buildings, trees, everything we can.”

Rep. Jim Wayne (D-Louisville) said he would like Parkinson to develop a long-term strategy, based on a set of core values, for the state park system.

“Don, I know you are a man of vision,” Wayne said in reference to Parkinson’s prior experience as senior vice president of KFC and YUM! in Louisville. “I would encourage you’ll to think about that.

“It is a great opportunity you have here to do more than patch up these crises. Give us a vision of where we can go and try to sell it to us. It will take some sales expertise to sell a vision of how great our parks are and how they have to be restored.”

Parkinson said that was “a fair challenge,” adding that he has increased room nights, defined as the total number of hotel rooms guests take up, multiplied by the number of nights in those rooms, by 18,000 per year.

Committee Co-chair Rep. Jerry T. Miller (R-Louisville) who once served as state parks commissioner, asked that Parkinson return to the committee to testify whether Kentucky’s public-private partnership (P3s) law has benefited the state park system. The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 132 in 2016 to allow government and private entities to enter into P3s as an alternative financing method for major public projects, such as state park repairs.

From the Legislative Research Commission

Image via Lake Kincaid State Park