Imagine that West Virginia’s governor, legislative leadership and commerce secretary called a press conference tomorrow to announce the potential attraction of a new industry to the state. One that generates up to $248 million in total economic significance, $189 million in direct economic impact, 3,209 jobs and $91.6 million in worker pay. The enthusiastic reception of such news would be beyond belief and everyone would be asking, “What must we do to assure that this endeavor succeeds?”
Actually, this economic engine already exists. It is the West Virginia State Park System and these numbers are from an official 2015 study commissioned by the Division of Natural Resources. It is generally regarded as one of the finest state park systems in the nation. Given the magnitude and age of its infrastructure, our challenge is to keep it operating at a high and productive standard by not allowing its luster and appeal to diminish.
Kudos to the governor and legislators for the current bond issue that is being used to address $60 million of the estimated $100 million backlog of infrastructure repair and replacement needs.
The question now is how do we go about addressing the estimated remaining $40 million in needs while also making sure that such a deficiency does not recur? If we don’t respond to that question with action, we put at risk the economic benefits described above.
Let’s also remember the natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources protected by our parks and how they deliver public recreational opportunities to residents in a state where many local governments are quite limited in that regard. Earlier this year, the governor announced a new 72-mile state park rail trail along the Elk River in Clay and Kanawha counties. Among other things he stated,” People all over the country, all over the world look for places where they can experience the kind of outdoor recreation that we have literally in our backyard. It is unbelievable what this will do for an area of our state that is starving for this.” Gov. Justice’s remarks at the announcement ceremony showed that he understands the importance, positive impact and tourism appeal of state parks.
Between now and the 2020 legislative session, we all need to get behind an additional new and dedicated source of regular funding for our state parks. Last session there was some discussion of perhaps carving off a small percentage of the revenue generated from the new imposition of sales tax on out-of-state internet sales transactions to the parks. There was even a draft bill ready for introduction but it did not appear. If that does not resurface, there are surely other possibilities that our governor, appointed officials and Legislature can work together to initiate. Whatever these might be, they would hopefully total up to at least a couple of million new dollars per year set aside just for parks.
Here is a final, very important suggestion to consider. If a source of new and dedicated funding is identified, it would be wise to place it in a protected state park endowment fund. A fund which would be allowed to build up to a point where the annual interest generated would be used, while allowing the principal to remain largely untouched. However we go about it, let’s assure that our wonderful state park system moves forward with a guarantee that its infrastructure will be protected and maintained while making certain that all the great benefit it provides to our state and citizens continue.