State pumping millions into park fixes

ODNR boss: “It’s the first time in recent memory our parks budget has not been cut."
MCT Regional News
Apr 25, 2014
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Ohio’s state parks, which have endured cutbacks in recent years, are getting an $88.5 million makeover — a budget windfall that officials say will transform the experience for users, including the 2.3 million who stayed at least one night in an Ohio park last year.

“This is probably the most exciting time I’ve seen,” said Hiedie Gibson, who manages Buck Creek, Kiser Lake, John Bryan and Madison Lake and has been with the department for 20 years.

“It’s promising. It’s going to boost morale throughout the parks,” Gibson said. “It’s really going to give the visitors and guests something to talk about.”

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is seeking feedback from the public on park improvements from restrooms to lodges, trails to beaches.

ODNR Director James Zehringer and Ohio Senate President Keith Faber promoted the effort Wednesday at stops at Grand Lake St. Marys State Park and Indian Lake State Park. The public can weigh in online at parks.ohiodnr.gov/improvements.

Zehringer said this opportunity for capital improvements is “unprecedented” and “much-needed.”

“It’s the first time in recent memory our parks budget has not been cut,” he said.

Improving bathroom facilities will be the first priority, according to Zehringer.

“The most critical things right now are getting our restrooms and showers up-to-date,” he said. Zehringer said changes will likely include adding private showers and upgrading to flush toilets.

The online survey already had 100 responses by Wednesday afternoon and improvements to restroom facilities was an early front-runner, Zehringer said.

The money stems from the state’s overall $2.4 billion, 2015-16 capital appropriations bill signed April 1 by Gov. John Kasich.

Glen Cobb, ODNR deputy director and chief of Ohio State Parks, said the new expenditure nearly quadruples the department’s current $20 million biennial capital budget.

Gibson said specific projects funded under her jurisdiction have yet to get a green-light, but a wish list completed two years ago will be a likely template. It called for the updating of cottages at Buck Creek as well as enhancing electric and water hookups at campsites. “Everything’s on the table right now,” Gibson said.

It’s not clear yet which projects statewide will move forward.

Zehringer said the state has fallen behind on catering to the needs of recreational vehicle owners who desire electric and water and sanitary hookups at campsites. .

“Some of these campers nowadays require larger, electrical service to run their air conditioning and a refrigerator,” Zehringer said. “Those would be some of the priorities.”

Joe Casto, 80, of Washington Twp. was camping with his son Jeff Casto, 53, of Huber Heights at John Bryan State Park on Wednesday. The two have spent about 60 nights in Joe’s 32-foot motorhome over the past three years. Joe Casto said they come for the beauty and serenity. He said his son, Jeff, who is developmentally disabled, loves to take hikes in the park.

Casto said only 10 of the nearly 60 camp sites at John Bryan have electric hookups and none have water or sanitary hookups at individual sites. He said the wait at the park’s dump station can sometimes take a half hour if one or more campers are in line.

Having a water hookup would be “a big convenience,” Casto said.

Both Zehringer and Gibson said the investment will help improve recreational opportunities and support local communities. Ohio has 74 state parks and is one of only seven states that do not charge an admission fee to visit.

Gibson said the money will “improve the quality of life because people want to get recreation. They want to be outdoors.

“We’re not building Taj Mahals,” she said. “We’re adding and updating. Nothing too lavish that we can’t support down the road.”

Zehringer said a project manager has been hired and planning has started.

The bulk of the money will be spent on campgrounds, $15.6 million; lodges, $15.1 million; water systems, $15 million; day use facilities, $13 million; and cabins, $10.5 million. ODNR is slated to spend $8 million on managing the projects.

The department’s list also includes $6 million for readying the former Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island for a potential public/private partnership. The winery was the site of a deadly 2000 balcony collapse, which killed one occupant and injured scores of others. The state acquired the island in 2001 for a state park.

Zehringer said the department would complete the projects within the next two years without disrupting the recreational opportunities of visitors.

“We’re going to make sure the timing of them is done correctly. This is going to be very, very well thought out,” he said. “With this money comes a lot of high expectations and a lot of responsibility we’re going to take seriously.”

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By Chris Stewart- Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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