After two years of recovering from damage from natural disasters, South Carolina state parks are on the rebound.
Revenues for the fiscal year through March are up 15 percent at the South Carolina State Park Service, Director Phil Gaines said.
“The main reason for that dramatic increase this current year compared to last year is the operation of those new facilities that we have,” he said. “The new campground at Huntington Beach, the new camper cabins at Dreher Island. We’re getting ready to open a new marina at Dreher Island and building a new campground at Lake Wateree.”
The success is welcome after damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 caused two of the state’s busiest campgrounds at Hunting Island and Edisto Beach State Parks to be closed for nearly a year.
“We have diversified over the past several years so we are not revenue-dependent on one particular area of the state, such as the coast,” Gaines said. “15 years ago we were dependent on revenues from coastal parks.”
In the 2015-16 fiscal year, South Carolina State Parks raised $28 million in revenue. That number for the 2016-17 fiscal year was $27 million. The past three years have been rough for the park service. In 2015, historic flooding damaged several parks. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew washed away campgrounds at Edisto, destroyed at dam at Little Pee Dee and left Hunting Island inaccessible. Later that year, a forest fire burned parts of Table Rock State Park. Then Hurricane Irma smashed through Hunting Island a year later.
Gaines said 2017 was a disaster recovery year.
“All of our facilities back open and all of our parks back open and our visitation numbers and particularly our revenue numbers are really showing that we’ve had a really good year and we’re off to a good start in 2018 with a very good spring and now hopefully good summer season,” Gaines said.
He said the park service has been trying to meet visitors’ demand for activities such as kayaking, canoeing, biking, hiking and 5K events. It also has been adding more campgrounds and facilities that generate revenue.
Additional new amenities include a campground under construction at Lake Wateree, cabins at Dreher Island and expanding the splash pad at Sesquicentennial State Park to become a year-round operation.
“What we’re hoping for is with these revenue generators that we’re in the process of building, and if we can get some breaks from Mother Nature, that we’re really, really close (to becoming self-sufficient),” Gaines said.
The park service is working to generate enough of its own operating revenues so as not to require funding from the state legislature. Gaines said the service is in the 90th percentile for financing.
“We’re really customer focus oriented and that’s helped us,” he said. “And it’s a good model that will sustain us in the long term.”
And that means giving the park’s visitors what they want.
“The more business-like we can be in our approach to managing our parks, the less of a burden it can be when it comes to our taxpayers and what we’ve found is our model is very effective” said Gaines.