The State of Our Parks: Can Arkansas’ turnaround be a roadmap for Mississippi?

Arkansas parks are attracting Mississippians
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 5:51 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - One disturbing fact that came out of the May PEER report on the State of our Parks was that many Mississippians are going to neighboring state parks to do their camping because of the declining condition of our facilities.

One of those neighbors is Arkansas, so we decided to take a road trip and investigate. Our trek started at Parkin Archeological State Park. We then traveled to Village Creek State Park. Our journey ended at the relatively new Mississippi River State Park.

Ben Swadley, Superintendent of Parkin Archeological State Park said, ”Well, this is a day use park....and we’re at a visitors center...”

Our first stop was Parkin, Arkansas, where state officials wanted us to see a day use facility. It’s a popular destination for many, including bus loads of school children. When they come here, they get a movie and an interactive history lesson on the Delta region of eastern Arkansas. Our interview with State Parks Director Grady Spann was conducted inside the restored, historic Northern Ohio School, a rare one-room school house for African Americans dating back to the 1900s.

From here, we take a 20-minute ride to Wynne, Arkansas. That’s the location of Village Creek State Park. It’s almost 7,000 acres of natural beauty, dotted with state-of-the-art lodging to fit budgets both big and small.

To get an up close and personal idea of what cabins are like, here, park officials invited us to stay in one of their upscale cabins and check out the amenities. It’s a rustic setting, but has all the modern things many expect for a comfortable stay these days: fresh looking exterior and on the inside, no rust on the appliances. There are keyless entry door locks and even custom-made mattresses with warranties.

Inside the state park rooms in Wynne, Arkansas.
Inside the state park rooms in Wynne, Arkansas.(WLBT)

”Some of our cabins rent for over $400 a night, but that’s a a really special experience for somebody who can afford it. But you can also stay in one of our camper cabins that are less than $80 a night,” Grady Spann said.

There are two lakes at Village Creek State Park for boating and fishing, picnic tables, grills and bathhouses available at the Day Use Area, with pavilions for rent, too. There’s also an enviable golf course at Village Creek. Officials admit it’s not a money maker, but there are no regrets.

John Stewart, Region 3 Supervisor said, ”We get guests from all over the country. It’s very unique to be able to have a golf course at a state park setting, so we’re very fortunate that we have this one here, especially because it’s a 27-hole Andy Dye designed course.”

The last stop was Marianna, Arkansas, where officials want us to see Mississippi River State Park. It’s a newer venture in partnership with the U.S. Park Service. You can find those camper cabins, Grady Spann mentioned, here, some still under construction, for less than $100 per night. Seizing on the huge popularity of RVing, there are upgraded pads and hook-ups, popular with locals like Don Nelson and his family and friends. There are two lakes here, also.

”I prefer this one more than any because it’s not too far from home and like I said, you can easily get here,” Don Nelson of Forrest City said. “I like the way it’s set up. It’s nice, the lake is nice. It’s just enjoyable.”

Believe it or not, it hasn’t always been this way. Park Ranger Vicky Trimble knows. She’s worked with Arkansas State Parks for 32 years.

”From experience, I have been there. We were exactly where Mississippi State Parks are right now,” Trimble said. “I mean, it was, we couldn’t even barely keep the gates open--that we just didn’t have the funding to repair what we had and provide quality facilities for the public.”

So, how did they turn things around?

”We have a constitutional amendment that takes one-eighth of every penny and 45% of that one-eighth is dedicated to Arkansas State Parks, which generates over $30 million a year,” Spann said/

Spann is a 24-year veteran and now director of Arkansas State parks. He’s also president of the National Association of State Park Directors. He said Arkansas lawmakers, embarrassed by the condition of their parks, came up with Amendment 75, a conservation sales tax, which voters approved in 1996.

“Before amendment 75, we were taking wood from the back of the building where it wasn’t rotted and putting it on the front of the building where it was rotted, so the customer wouldn’t see it. We didn’t fix the problem, we just put a better face on it,” Spann said. ”We get to keep all of our cash revenue, so every time somebody camps in a park, stays in a lodge, eats in one of our restaurants and stays in one of our cabins, rents a boat--that revenue that that generates is kept within the state park system. So, that generates between 28 and 30 million dollars a year.”

Asked if there was any pushback or backlash from Arkansas voters when the the conservation tax was proposed, Park Ranger Vicky Trimble said, ”Actually, there was not. We spent a many, many hours, the staff of state parks, many hours going out in the community, the Rotary Club, the Civic Clubs, you know, and we went everywhere. The state produced a video showing exactly what we were up against with the crumbling of our infrastructure, you know, and things that we couldn’t keep open any longer if we didn’t have a constant source of funding.”

And, said Spann, all 52 of Arkansas’ state parks are free entry to the public. The investment appears to be paying off. We asked Spann for an accounting of how many Mississippians are coming to Arkansas State Parks.

Should Mississippi follow Arkansas' lead?
Should Mississippi follow Arkansas' lead?(WLBT)

”From 2019, which is a couple years ago and then we went through the COVID year and looking forward to 2023, we have about 3 quarters of a million dollars booked in camping, lodging, cabins, booked in revenue from Mississippians.”

From Mississippians?

“From Mississippians,” Spann confirmed. “That’s the dollar amount that’s currently in our system from people from Mississippi.”

Vicky Trimble said, ”Now, Mississippi has some amazing state parks and if they can secure the funding for them, that they would care enough to take care of their parks like the people of Arkansas did. We were absolutely thrilled when the people of Arkansas realized how important state parks are, you know, to their health and well-being and you know for family environments that they took care of us and that’s the only reason that we’ve risen out of where we were, is because the people voted the tax in for us.”

Director Spann said his department also has an active marketing budget, spending about a $1.5 million per year.

To be clear, Mississippi has some modern, well-appointed parks, camping and lodging facilities. The key is making them attractive enough and keeping them maintained, so that neighboring states like Arkansas won’t be a preferred destination.

One Mississippi lawmaker State Senator Angela Hill, said she would be interested in having Grady Spann, the director of Arkansas State Parks, come meet with Mississippi officials to share information about how they turned their state park system around.

I will have her interview and feedback about this from other Mississippi officials in future reports.

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