After a yearlong review, South Carolina's 47 state parks will remain within the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism with a goal of making park operations pay for themselves by the end of next year.
When Gov. Nikki Haley took office last year, she asked for a review of the parks system with an eye toward whether the parks might be more efficiently administered by the state Department of Natural Resources.
After traveling from the mountains to the sea visiting all the state's parks, PRT Director Duane Parrish recently presented the governor with a report on the status of the park system. The park system began during the Great Depression with 15 parks carved out of the wild by workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The study was conducted with the help of outside researchers. It found that last year, there were 8 million visitor days at the parks -- one person visiting for one day -- generating nearly $20 million in revenue. Nearly 400,000 visitors stayed overnight at a park.
The 80,000-acre state park system features 3,000 campsites, 144 cabins, 80 hotel rooms, two golf courses, and more than 300 miles of hiking and riding trails.
The report makes four main recommendations:
-- That state parks remain under PRT to better market and develop the parks.
-- That steps be taken so park operations, which last year cost about $24 million to operate, are self-sufficient by the end of 2013.
-- That deferred maintenance needs be prioritized and other sources of money be found to pay for such maintenance.
-- That revenue bonds be considered for capital projects, such as water attractions at state parks that will produce additional revenue.
" Governor Haley is encouraged to see that director Parrish and his team have developed a plan to get our state parks out of the red and off of taxpayer funds by 2013," said Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley.
Currently, about 83 percent of the money needed to operate the state's parks is generated through admission fees, retail sales, programs and special events. In the Southeast, only Alabama does better in generating a higher percentage of the revenue at about 89 percent.
Parrish said that to become self-sufficient, the parks need to generate an additional $4 million in revenue. He said that can be done by the end of next year.
"That's reasonable," he said. "My guess is that this year we will finish up close to 90 percent," he said. "Everything is heading in that direction."
The park system in recent months added a deferred maintenance fee for overnight reservations and adjusted some prices of campsites and cabins to reflect market demand. This month, officials changed the flat-rate park passport program to a series of three passports offering different prices and benefits.
Also, Parrish said, for the first time a brochure listing all the state parks is being produced. That brochure, he said, should pay for itself through ads.
The report also found the state's parks have almost $155 million in deferred maintenance needs. It found five must be accomplished within five years to avoid closing some areas because of safety concerns.
The highest priced maintenance items include upgrading RV campsites to 50 amp electrical service statewide at a cost of $9.4 million; replacing water and sewer systems at Table Rock, Santee, Oconee and Hunting Island state parks at a cost of $3.7 million; and rebuilding the dam at Croft State Park at a cost of about $1.5 million.