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The State of Our Parks: Taking Action

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 6:57 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - We showed you the problems Mississippi state parks are having. We also showed you how a neighboring state, Arkansas, fixed their state park issues and now are thriving, even attracting Mississippi campers.

We continue our 3 On Your Side investigation with a look at the actions state officials are taking when it comes to the State Of Our Parks.

Looking at archive video from the early 2000s, you could see lots of RVs and people. It was a pretty common at Mississippi state parks.

“I remember a time for our state parks that you couldn’t get a reservation for an RV for over a year,” Rep. Becky Currie said. “It was a year on a waiting list to get in our cabins. It’s just not that way any more.”

A look at state parks in the 2000s.
A look at state parks in the 2000s.(WLBT)

That point was driven home by Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Director, Sam Polles.

Polles said, ”Realistically, we’ve gone through 20 years, probably a little more than 20 years of neglect. In fact, we didn’t have the money to upgrade as we moved through time.”

Polles was addressing the Mississippi Joint Legislative Budget Committee on September 24.

”We’re proud of some of the things we’ve been doing lately, trying to get done in the future,” said Polles.

We sat down with Jennifer Head again, to find out what has been done and what the department is trying to do in the future. She is Budget Administrator and Legislative Liaison for Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Head shared an architect’s rendering of what is scheduled for Roosevelt State Park, the first of 5 targeted for upgrades in Phase 1.

“Totally updated: still have that esthetic of being in a park setting but updated appliances,” Head said. “Updated features throughout, from bedding to cabinetry to bathroom top to bottom, even offering a really nice outdoor experience off of the patio area. We’re gonna do a concrete patio with a fire pit and a grill so it will be a really nice experience for the camper.”

And when can we expect to see some actual progress?

”The rest of Phase 1 we hope to award to a vendor by the end of November, so we should see some progress within this fiscal year, June 30. I’m not saying it will be completely finished, but we should be well on the way,” said Head.

Also on the department’s budgetary wish list:

”We’ve asked for support for a full-time marketing person that’s specifically for parks so that we can get some of the advertising and promotional items and whether it’s radio, tv, billboards...all of that. That’s the net direction,” Head said.

Arkansas has more than a million dollar budget dedicated to marketing its parks. So, how will all of this be paid for in Mississippi? Wildlife has $3.5 million to be matched with federal funds, as well as private dollars to work with now. Arkansas voters approved a one-eighth of a cent tax that generates $30 million per year of dedicated funds for it’s parks. Could that happen here?

Rep. Becky Currie said, ”Well, you know it’s going to be very difficult in the legislature today to raise a tax. We’re not really in the tax raising business and I kind of like that about what we’re doing.”

Instead, Representative Currie said she would like to see Mississippi tap into the $80-$100 million a year that comes from the lottery.

”What I took from the Arkansas legislation was that nobody was really upset that they raised taxes to fix their state parks, so I don’t feel like anybody would be upset that we took some of that lottery money, not raise your taxes and we fix our state parks so that they’re able to bring in their own revenue,” said Currie.

Unlike Arkansas, Mississippi’s park system has had to share resources with Wildlife and Fisheries. Because of that, Currie said she believes parks suffered.

”You know the administration that is there now has not been interested in making sure that our state parks were kept clean and up to date. They had their eye on other areas in wildlife and fisheries.”

Another source of income is a specialty license plate with a simple, but important message: Support State Parks.

”It’s not a lot of money, but every little bit helps and it adds up,” Head said. “But the money collected from the sale of specialty tag, $20 of each tag, goes to the infrastructure fund for parks.”

We pointed out in our previous report that Arkansas State Parks, in the 1990s, were in the same shape as Mississippi parks are in today. I asked Rep. Currie if she and other lawmakers would be open to a visit from Arkansas State Parks director Grady Spann.

She replied, ”We take legislation from other states all the time. You know, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If they have good legislation, of course, we look at it. We may tweak it some to make it our own, but if they had a great idea and it worked, we need to look at it.”

Clearly, the awareness is there now and with the number of campers and campers’ dollars taking their families and their dollars out of Mississippi, the effort to address the state of our parks has begun.

“So, we have some beautiful, beautiful resources across the state, beautiful state parks and we just want people to come back and visit them and we want to make them beautiful,” said Jennifer Head.

There’s more in the works to improve the state of our parks. In fact, you may be surprised with one of the ideas bounced around at the September 24th budget committee meeting. You can see it here:

We will continue to follow the progress as officials work to improve the state of our parks.

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