Brad Reed knows he has a tough job to do.
With the COVID-19 crisis ongoing, West Virginia’s parks system has brought in $2 million less than expected. By the end of the year, the shortfall could be as high as $8 million. That’s daunting news for Reed, the state’s newly appointed parks chief.
“We’re concerned, but we’re optimistic at the same time,” Reed said. “Revenues are down, and our revenue accounts represent about 60% of our overall spending. We’re really tied to tourist dollars to help us operate and maintain our parks.”
Those tourist dollars didn’t come in during the period between March 20, when Gov. Jim Justice closed state parks and lodges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and June 6, when they began to reopen.
To try to make up some of the lost revenue, Justice ordered parks to offer a 30% discount to state residents for all lodge and cabin rentals booked between June 1 and Aug. 31. Reed hopes the promotion will spur a flood of rentals large enough to offset some of the current deficit.
“The discount program for residents is working very well,” he said. “We’re getting hit heavily with in-state reservations.
“Staying home in West Virginia has become a ‘thing’ now. This is an indication that people have rediscovered their state parks.”
The question that remains, Reed said, is whether the discount-fueled influx of reservations will help offset the anticipated loss of nonresident business.
“A huge part of our lodge and cabin rentals come from out-of-state people, particularly at the large resort parks,” he said. “For instance, Cacapon, over near the Maryland and Virginia borders, gets 80% to 90% of its business from nonresidents.”
If the discount program doesn’t make up the current shortfall, Reed and other parks officials say they hope to receive some of the $2.6 billion sent to the state by the federal government to help businesses affected by coronavirus-related closures.
“We’re hoping to get some of that money to help backfill our accounts,” Reed said.
Even if that money doesn’t come, Reed said he is confident parks personnel will find a way to make do with what they have.
“For years, we were living in low-budget conditions, having equipment problems and just no money, and still, our people managed to keep things together with chewing gum and baling twine,” he said. “Our field people are great; they’ll find a way to do it.”
For 21 of the 31 years he’s been in the parks system, Reed was one of those field people. After graduating from Marshall University in 1987 with a degree in parks and recreation, he worked at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park in Mason County, Babcock State Park in Fayette County, Canaan Valley State Park in Tucker County and Cacapon Resort State Park in Morgan County.
For the past 10 years, he has worked out of the Charleston office, first as a regional supervisor and, later, as deputy chief under then-chief Sam England.
When England retired in December, Division of Natural Resources Director Steve McDaniel made Reed acting chief. On June 11, Justice removed the “acting” label.
“I want to thank Director McDaniel and the governor for giving me this opportunity,” Reed said. “What I want to do as chief is to help to bring forth that level of excellence our field people have always achieved. I want to be a catalyst to help them do what they do.”
Reed called the COVID-19 situation “a perfect example” of parks employees’ adaptability.
“Right now, we’re having daily evolutions and changes in our operational procedures,” he said. “Every day, things are going on with guest concerns and employee concerns, and our people just handle it. They make things work, no matter what they have to come up with. In many ways, they make my job easy.”
One of the more pleasurable tasks Reed faces is spending $60 million in money from a bond issue designed to upgrade the parks system’s long-neglected infrastructure. He said some of the task is already complete, and more work is on the way.
“I’m proud to announce that we have the majority of our cabin renovations already complete,” he continued. “We have about 350 cabins and, as of now, the majority of them are done.
“Our guests who are used to coming to these cabins year after year are going to be very pleasantly surprised when they see how nice we’ve made some of them.”
Next, he said, will come renovations to some of the system’s major lodges.
“North Bend will probably be first,” he said. “In late summer, construction will begin at North Bend. In the fall, we’ll start at Blackwater, and then will come Hawks Nest, Pipestem and Tygart. They’re all going to get a pretty nice facelift.”
The short-term outlook for the parks system, brought on by COVID-19, looks bleak. The long-term outlook, bolstered by the bond issue, looks bright.
“Our core goals are to protect and preserve the environment, and to provide recreation,” Reed said. “We’re moving our business interest forward in a way that does not compromise those core values. And if I can do anything to bring the park system forward, I will continue that tradition, because I think it’s pretty special.”