Visitors ‘pay-to-play’ at Charleston County Parks, a national movement to cover expenses

Visitors to Whirlin’ Waters Adventure Park wait for the water to cover them from the bucket on top of the Big Splash Tree House.

Brad Nettles

Ever wonder why you have to pay $1 admission at many of Charleston County’s parks, unlike many parts of the country?

That’s because in a county where many residents bristle at even the thought of a tax increase, the parks generate much of the money it takes to maintain them.

The Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission has become known as a leader in the national “pay-to-play” movement in recent years. In the last several years, it has covered between 45 percent and 55 percent of its operating budget with income it generates from charging fees for activities including: water parks, cabins and campgrounds, retail and food sales, admission and parking fees and special events.

Parks Superintendent Donna Gueldner said the commission’s operating budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year was about $23 million. But only $10.5 million, or about 45 percent of that, came from county taxpayers.

Tom O’Rourke, the commission’s executive director, was featured in the National Recreation and Park Association’s magazine for his success in bringing in money to support parks.

O’Rourke said he’s proud of the commission’s work. For instance, he said, a $3.5 million beach renourishment project at Folly Beach County Park, which likely will be completed by July 3, didn’t require any federal or state money and won’t result in an increase for county taxpayers.

And most county residents seem to accept the local pay-to-play practice, officials said.

Terri Walter, a Mount Pleasant mother of two 9-year-old sons, said she thinks the system is a good idea. Walter spent a day earlier this week at the Whirlin’ Waters water park at Wannamaker County Park in North Charleston. She buys annual “splash passes” so her children go to the water park regularly in the summer.

“People who don’t ever go to the parks shouldn’t have to pay,” she said. And she has no problem with her admission fees at Whirlin’ Waters being used to help the park system. “I think it’s fine to take it from this park and use it for others,” she said.

Gueldner said that even though some parks generate more money than others, it’s important to remember that the parks are part of a larger system. Not all sites can financially sustain themselves, she said. Some sites have limitations that prevent them from being big revenue-generators, she said, but they remain important parts of the system. The commission isn’t trying to make each individual site self-sustaining, she said.

She also said that she has received occasional complaints from park users who want to know why they have to pay to use a public park. Most of those people have moved here from other parts of the country and are used to free park admission, she said. But when she takes the time to explain the system to them, they usually come around.

County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he has not heard any complaints from his constituents about fees at county parks. “I think it’s a good thing,” he said of the pay-to-play system. “Sometimes you have to charge a price. It’s either that or raise taxes.”

And the fee to use a park is small, he said. “Where else can you go for a dollar?”

Pryor also said the commission makes sure there are programs in place to provide access for people who can’t afford admission fees or certain park programs.

O’Rourke has said the park commission now is working on plans for four undeveloped park properties. And commissioners will be exploring money-generating ideas or themes for all of them.

Hanahan resident Jessica Scott, who was at Whirlin’ Waters with her husband and child earlier this week, is not a Charleston County resident, but her family’s day in the sun and water is supporting its parks. That’s fine with her. She grew up in the area and hung out at Whirlin’ Waters as a teenager. She always has loved it, she said, “but now that we have kids, it’s the ‘awesomeist’ place to come.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.