Ivey announces $80 million in park improvements

By WILLIAM MARLOW / For the Reporter

Gov. Kay Ivey announced a multimillion-dollar partnership between Alabama’s public and private sectors on Thursday, April 15 that will focus on improving the State Parks System. The partnership will help fund major renovations to the state’s 21 recreational parks over the next five years.

On Thursday, Ivey partnered with the Alabama State Park Foundation and companies from across the state to propose a $80 million bond issue for park improvements. This partnership was formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which Ivey said had caused a surge in state park attendance over the past year. State parks averaged 6.27 million visitors last year compared to 5 million in 2019.

“Over the past year, during the pandemic, more Alabamians sought solace, refuge and reflection in our state parks than ever before, which is why I support the use of state bonds to make the needed enhancements throughout the state parks,” Ivey said. “Alabamians love and cherish the State Parks, and we must make sure they are maintained and available for generations to come.”

The majority of funding for state parks, 80 to 90 percent annually, is currently generated through user fees for rental, lodging, golf and other amenities in the parks. Ivey said this partnership aims to provide additional support to Alabama’s State Parks System and fund various park improvements, including to various campgrounds, cabins and lodging, park amenities and educational programs. The state’s initial focus will be renovating three specific parks: Oak Mountain State Park, Lakepoint State Park and Joe Wheeler State Park.

Two of the parks, Oak Mountain and Joe Wheeler, have suffered significant and widespread tornado damage within the last two years, and Ivey said these parks will be the immediate priority.

“This partnership will lead to even greater improvements that can be made quickly and attract even more business. This in turn will safeguard the ability of our parks to be self-sufficient and contribute to Alabama’s economic growth,” Ivey said.

According to Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation, this partnership comes at a time when many of Alabama’s parks are in need of repairs or renovations, and he said that these funds will go toward enhancing park facilities as well as the creation of additional facilities in the future.

“Our state parks system is running as efficiently as ever, there are plenty of needs in every one of the 21 parks — both the small and larger parks,” Blankenship said. “What Governor Ivey and the Alabama State Parks Foundation have done is created a funding framework for how we can modernize and enhance an already dynamic State Parks system and make it better than ever.”

Blankenship said this partnership will accelerate park growth for years to come, and expects park attendance only to rise following this news.

Ivey said the amount of funding that she is requesting will require legislative oversight and that the $80 million bond will need to be enacted in the form of a constitutional amendment. The amendment is currently under consideration in the state legislature, and would need final approval from voters.

In the meantime, Ivey said Alabama’s private sector will take the lead on this project. In addition to the $80 million the state is raising, the Alabama State Parks Foundation announced the launch of a corporate fundraising campaign with a goal of raising an additional $14 million for park improvements over the next five years.

The Buffalo Rock Company and the Alabama Power Foundation kicked off the campaign yesterday, and contributed $350,000 between the two groups.

“Since the creation of the Alabama State Parks Foundation in 2018, we have worked to improve and enhance our State Parks, and our corporate giving campaign is another significant and important step for our organizations,” Alabama State Parks Foundation President Dan Hendricks said. “I applaud and thank Governor Ivey for her visionary leadership and support of the State Parks system.”

According to Gregory Lein, director of the Alabama State Parks Division, this public-private partnership is one of the largest conservation efforts in Alabama in nearly a century.

“We find ourselves today on the edge of something great and wonderful for the state of Alabama and for our park system,” he said.

If passed by the state Legislature, voters could approve the constitutional amendment as early as 2022.