Committee Hears Study on Economic Impact of State Parks
A study on the economic impact of Oklahoma State Parks have on their communities met Monday before the Oklahoma House Appropriations & Budget Natural Resources Subcommittee. The study was organized by Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore. Townley opened the meeting by expressing her gratitude for everyone participating in the study. "I hope this study will bring awareness to the fact that we need improvements in capital infrastructure. It is all of our desire to see want to see Oklahoma growing and thriving," Townley said. "Oklahoma State Parks are a vital part of our state and have the potential to create more growth." Townley reminded attendees that the tourism industry is the state's third largest economic driver and should be invested in regularly. Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt told the committee that state parks welcomed 11.5 million people in 2021, generating $15.5 million in state taxes and $9.3 million in local taxes. Additionally, she mentioned that visitors spent $354.3 million in local communities during their stays. Zumwalt asked the members to consider what the goal of state parks are in their communities. "I would argue that probably in the beginning it was recreation and conservation, but at this point we need to look at it as a source of economic activity because it absolutely is," she said. Zumwalt said deferred maintenance has resulted in the closing of one state park during her one-year tenure and that right now other parks are facing issues that are currently preventable, including deteriorating roads, gas lines that need to be replaced, and rotting buildings and infrastructure. "Right now the funding doesn’t match the need," Zumwalt said. "The growing list of unresolved issues has reached an emergency state." Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Director of State Parks Sterling Zearley said Oklahoma state parks have approximately $350 million capital needs statewide and only continues to grow. "We need the Legislature's help to make sure we can fund these state parks appropriately not just now, but 10, 15, 20 years down the road when my grandson's old enough to start going out to them," Zearley said. He pointed to the Roman Nose Group Camp, which was originally built in the 1960s and has not been updated since, but the surrounding area cannot afford to lose the $7.8 million spent by park visitors in the community. Zearley said immediate funding of $50 million will allow the department to address critical maintenance needs over the next year, but a total of $350 million is critical to the continued operation of state parks; otherwise, numerous parks are at risk of closure due to unsafe infrastructure.