More enjoying state parks

Zoo curator Jillian Davis puts out new hay for sheep Thursday at the zoo at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in West Ashley. Attendance was up 10 percent at the state park last year when 119,000 toured the grounds and its attractions.

People looking to unwind, unplug and soak up some sun fueled an 11 percent overall jump in attendance at county and state parks.

Officials point to area growth and better marketing for the increase. Park visitors say the aesthetic experience draws them.

“We love Nature Island. It’s undeveloped and gorgeous and really, really nice,” said Paul King of Mount Pleasant. The attraction is at Palmetto Islands County Park.

Locally, the biggest increase in crowds was at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park Pier run by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. The venue logged 25 percent more visitors in 2014 for a total of 229,000 people.

Even on gray days, the facility next to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge draws people.

“I come out here and walk a lot,” said Karen Milonas of James Island.

Milonas has annual passes for both the county and state park system. She particularly enjoys Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site where she takes her granddaughter to the zoo.

“Charles Towne Landing is beautiful,” she said.

Visitors to the West Ashley park were up 10 percent last year when 119,000 toured the grounds and its attractions.

Blythe McCuistion of Goose Creek was there with her toddler son and baby.

“He (son) loves to run and we don’t have to hold him back,” she said.

Her friend, Katie Gandy of James Island, said, “I just like walking in the woods.”

Charles Towne Landing has become a major wedding destination and offers some new events, such as a 5K run and an outdoor yoga series, said Manager Rob Powell.

Parks offer people a chance to unplug from the fast-paced digital world of cellphones and computers. “People are just looking to get out more,” Powell said.

Pinching pennies could be a factor in growing park visits. Annual passes for both park systems offer unlimited visits for under $100.

“It has been found that park usage does go up slightly during economic down times especially among families,” said Wayne Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the College of Charleston.

Smith said he would argue that a 6 percent increase in Charleston County population to 372,800 and a 23 percent jump in tourism to 4.8 million visitors has helped park attendance. The numbers compare 2010 with 2013.

“While I am sure that the county parks are doing a great job in the marketing department; they have been helped by demographic increase of prime users into the community,” he said.

People moving to Charleston County tend to be highly educated and work in professional positions at businesses such as Boeing. Generally, they are younger and under 40 years old.

“That combines to be prime park demography. You could probably make a similar argument for the state parks as well,” he said.

Berkeley County’s Cypress Gardens in Moncks Corner had steady attendance of 38,000 in 2014, despite a bridge on Cypress Gardens Road being out from April to October last year. The situation forced visitors to take a 20-mile detour on Bushy Park Road to reach Cypress Gardens, said Heather Graham, park manager.

Givhans Ferry State Park, Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site and the National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest are in Dorchester County which does not own or operate any parks of its own. However, the county is moving in that direction with the creation of a Parks and Recreation Master Plan.

Last year, visits to Colonial Dorchester were up 3 percent to 22,100 while Givhans Ferry saw a 10 percent drop to 47,500. The Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Beidler Forest has had about 10,000 to 12,000 visitors annually for the past 20 years, said Mike Dawson, center director.

“I’ve been trying for 35 years to significantly impact our visitation numbers,” he said.

The economic downturn and fewer school groups visiting have played a role in park numbers, he said.

Across South Carolina, nearly 800,000 more people visited the state parks last year compared with 2013. In all, 7.7 million people went to a park.

Hunting Island State Park in Beaufort County was the most visited park last year with nearly 1.4 million people going through its gates. That was an increase of nearly 26 percent. Myrtle Beach State Park had the second-highest number of visitors in 2014 with nearly 1.3 million, up 4 percent from 2013.

State park revenue for the last fiscal year was up 34 percent over the previous year, The Associated Press reported.

County parks spokeswoman Sarah Reynolds said the 11 percent overall increase in customers from 2013 to 2014 includes 14 percent more people going to the beach parks. The Caw Caw Interpretive Center had 10 percent more visitors.

“We have seen incremental increases in attendance of our parks every year,” she said.

County park visitors increased to 2.1 million last year.

Fort Sumter National Monument saw a 3 percent drop in attendance in 2013 when 815,007 visited, according to figures posted at the National Park Service website.

NPS official Dawn Davis said Fort Sumter attendance peaked at nearly 858,000 in 2011 for the Civil War sesquicentennial. In 2013, unusually bad winter weather and a government shutdown were factors. But, “It was a really good year for us,” she said.

Visitors to Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant increased 7 percent to 47,309 in 2013.

Overall 2014 figures for both parks will be released soon, Davis said.

Nationwide, 23 states saw more visitors to their parks from 2012 to 2013, the latest available figures. All 50 states combined added 6.8 million visitors in 2013, an increase of slightly less than 1 percent, said Roxanne Sutton, spokeswoman for the National Association of State Park Directors.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.