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State parks among the richest treasures of Mississippi

Studies haven’t been conducted of the overall economic impact of Mississippi State Parks. But there are some things that can’t be measured in dollars, and the recreational value of the 28 state parks covering 23,467 acres is one of those.

The state’s Web site for the parks, www.mdwpf.gov/parks.asp, says, “Visit any of Mississippi’s 28 state parks and uncover some of the best vacation spots in the world. Whether it’s winding your way down a nature trail or relaxing by an open fire, state parks are some of Mississippi’s best-kept secrets.”

Actually, though, the word is out. Last year there were 4.2 million visits to state parks. The state has a population of about 2.4 million.

“We have more visitors every year than we have population in the state. We only have about 2.4 million people in the state of Mississippi,” said Kelly Mitchell, northern district manager, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP). “So, many of those visitors must be from out of state.” A little less than 10% of visitors come from out of state.

State parks saw a surge of visitors in late 2001 and in 2002 as visitors shunned air travel and were more likely to vacation close to home. Mitchell said that trend tends to be flattening out. But the overall trend towards the popularity of outdoor recreation and eco tourism continues to increase.

“Eco tourism is on the rise nationwide,” Mitchell said. “We’re one of the last places to really move in that direction, but it is a direction we are moving in. We are such a rural state that it really hasn’t been the big issue it has been in more urban areas. We are seeing a large influx of visitors from states that haven’t taken the proactive measures Mississippi has to acquire land and preserve it. We have big movements of people coming in from Louisiana and Alabama.”

Another trend is towards using Mississippi State Park facilities for business meetings. Mitchell said there is a migration towards rural areas for business meetings because there are fewer distractions, less traffic congestion and recreational opportunities. Another thing business meeting planners like is “one-stop shopping.”

“We have the meeting facilities and food service, and can do everything you need without having to leave,” Mitchell said. “The only real problem we have is that we don’t have facilities that are large enough for all of the requests that are coming in.”

The largest meeting facility for state parks is the Livingston Performing Arts and Media Center located off 1-20 at Roosevelt State Park in Morton. The center has theater seating for 600 people with a lobby, public restrooms, auditorium, sound and light production rooms and dressing rooms. The professional stage has a 3,200-square-foot wooden floor with a 50-foot curtain opening.

The facility has radio and television production capacity in conjunction with the Mississippi Educational Television Network and Mississippi Public Radio. Worldwide teleconferencing is available at the park that also has overnight lodge rooms, cabins, campgrounds and group camps. Alfreda Lodge can accommodate 300 people for meetings and banquets.

The MDWFP, like other state agencies, has been challenged by the state’s budget woes. The state provides approximately half of the funds needed to run the parks, with the other half coming from fees such as the $2 per vehicle entrance fee at parks, plus fees for camping and renting cabins or motel rooms. Fees are set by the Legislature, which limits the ability to raise fees to pay operating expenses or add new facilities.

Ted Brown, MDWFP director of accounting and finance, said the agency has cut expenses in order to avoid closing any of the state’s parks as a result of the fiscal problems.

“We have had a real hard time with the budget this year,” Brown said. “But we have not closed any state parks as a result, which is a tendency in other states. We were lucky we didn’t have to do that. It took advance planning to put a little money aside. We will be pretty strapped for 2004. No one realizes the number of structures — lodges, cabins, picnic tables and bathrooms — that have to be painted and kept up. You have to keep everything clean so people will want to come. So far we think we have done a pretty good job of that.”

Surveys show that visitors come to state parks to camp, fish, ski, swim, hike, ride bikes and attend the different special events held from time to time at the parks.

“Our state parks are a wonderful surprise to most Mississippians,” Brown said. “You can’t get a reservation for the motel rooms at state parks. They are reserved for weekends up to a year in advance pretty much all over. But you can get accommodations during the week at most parks. Most people don’t realize we have motel units at some of the parks. That is not your rustic cabin-type accommodations. They are really nice and only $50 per night, which you can’t beat with a stick. Two state parks are large enough to allow hunting. Natchez State Park covers 3,461 acres. Leroy Percy State Park in Hollandale, which has 1,791 acres, also allows hunting.”

Down on the Coast, a wave pool at Buccaneer State Park is the biggest attraction. The park draws an average of 8,000 visitors per month, even during the winter months.

“Kids really love that wave pool,” Brown said. “It is a big drawing card down on the Coast.”

Brown said the MDWFP would like to build more facilities at state parks, particularly more motel rooms since those are so popular. But budget woes are forestalling those efforts at present.

Statewide 351 people are employed at the state parks, which took in revenues of $6.8 million in fiscal 2002. The park with the highest visitation is Percy Quinn State Park in McComb, which boasts an 18-hole PGA golf course among other attractions. The park drew 1.3 million visitors in fiscal 2002. It is particularly popular with visitors from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., and from Jackson and Hattiesburg.

Brown says the Mississippi is considered a poor state.

“I’m not sure I believe that totally,” Brown said.

When you look at the wealth of diversity and inexpensive recreation opportunities provided by Mississippi State Parks, rich — not poor — is the word that comes to mind.

For more information, see the Web site www.mdwfp.com or call 1-800-GO-PARKS.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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