Stakes high in state parks

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Staff
mharrell@starhq.com

   State parks across Tennessee were closed last August after the General Assembly cut the department's budget. This past week, in an act of reversal, the Senate and House voted to reopen 14 state parks through June 30. With state parks' fate post July 1 still hanging in the balance local park officials and park enthusiasts are waiting to see what happens next.
   Sycamore Shoals Historical Park and Roan Mountain State Park were two of the 34 parks that were partially closed after the Tennessee General Assembly mandated that the governor cut $110 million in spending last year. The parks have been closed each Monday and Tuesday since the cuts were made, but supervisors at the parks expect to resume full operating hours after the governor signs the amendment.
   The employees at the state park have been hit hard by the General Assembly's decision to cut their operating hours. Many of the workers have had to find other means of employment, while those who stayed at the parks have had to endure uncertain schedules. Herb Roberts, Sycamore Shoals Historical Park Superintendent, has had to make adjustments in his personal schedule in order to run the park in a three-day work week. He has had to work Wednesday through Sunday since Labor Day, leaving little time for him to spend with his wife.
   Roberts stated that the working conditions at the park have caused employee morale to become extremely low. "There is a bunch of smart people that work in the state parks that have dedicated their lives to the service and have not received a great deal of pay or respect for it," Roberts said.
   Many of the state parks have not ordered the materials they need to be fully operational. Parks with pools are not prepared to open as no chemicals are in stock and lifeguards have not been hired. "Most park employees have found other jobs. They could not wait on the state to do something," Roberts said.
   Roberts learned of the park's reopening during a conference call last week and is ready to resume the park's regular schedule. He noted that the smaller state parks will be able to reopen with less effort than the larger parks. "If you have a staff of 50 people it is hard to snap your fingers and reopen. They are trying to pull these people back and if they can't get their staffs back they will have to run as day use," Roberts said. "At Sycamore Shoals we anticipate opening next week if the amendment is signed this week."
   Local families that frequently visit the parks have an emotionally invested interest in seeing the gates stay open. Jamelle McKinney and her two children spend a great deal of time at the Roan Mountain State Park during the summer. "My husband and I do not get off work at the same time so our summer vacation is at the pool," McKinney said.
   Roan Mountain families flock to the pool each summer, and although they are relieved that legislation has been passed to reopen the parks until July, they are concerned about what will happen after the date. "You would not believe the number of kids in this community that do not get to go on vacations," McKinney said. "This pool is all that these kids have and it is always the same ones there."
   In the meantime, state park employees and concerned residents are hoping that the General Assembly appropriates the funding necessary to keep the parks open after July 1. Local legislators have watched and participated first hand in the parks closing decision making, and although several members of the House have voiced their opposition to reopening the parks during such lean financial times, local lawmakers are standing behind their decisions to restore area parks' operating hours.
   "The parks have been closed and I felt that closing the parks that were generating revenue was a mistake. Our objective is to generate money. All we had to do was open these parks and they will make money. I was very pleased and proud to co-sponsor legislation in the Senate last week that will reopen local parks," Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) said. "Tourism is vitally important to our area and I know that every dollar that we spend on tourism can multiply 10-13 times. We cannot harm our future tourism in order to solve immediate budget problems."
   State Representative Ralph Cole (R-Elizabethton) stated that everyone in Carter County should know that he has always been interested in the state parks. Rep. Cole stated that he voted not to override Gov. Don Sundquist's veto of last year's budget because he could foresee cutbacks such as closing state parks in the state's future.
   Rep. Cole believes the recent legislation passed to reopen state parks is a step in the right direction. "Since the Lands Acquisition Fund is used to acquire new park properties, it was the logical source to go for needed funds to get these park properties, it was the logical source to go for needed funds to get these parks back into operation," Rep. Cole said. "I will be working hard to find revenue to keep the parks open after July 1."