Missouri launches campaign to increase lagging state park attendance

Thursday, October 8, 2009
Betsy Kunz shows her son Jeremiah, 3, the view from Bollinger Mill State Historic Site to the Whitewater River below Wednesday morning in Burfordville. Attendance to state parks is down dramatically over the past decade. (Kit Doyle)

Sitting on a park bench Wednesday afternoon, Ann Tolbert of Sikeston, Mo., looked across the waterfall at Bollinger Mill State Historic Site.

"I love to just sit under the trees and look across this beautiful part of nature," Tolbert said. "And in this economy we're in, it's hard to beat the price, which is free."

Four times each year Tolbert takes in the waterfall, picnic area and covered bridge at the site in Burfordville while visiting family in nearby Marble Hill, Mo.

Tolbert is among the 28,326 people who visited the park from January through August. While attendance in 2009 is up 18 percent at Bollinger Mill State Historic Site compared to the same time period last year, overall attendance at Missouri's 83 state parks and historic sites has dropped 18.6 percent from 18.2 million in 1999 to 14.8 million in 2008.

To that end, Gov. Jay Nixon recently launched a new initiative to reverse the trend. Nixon and park officials hope families spend more of their tourism dollars in the state.

Bollinger Mill State Historic site administrator Lesley McDaniel said that recent rains made the Whitewater River top the dam for the first time in a while under the Burfordville Covered Bridge.

The effort will focus heavily on improving the websites of each individual park and historic site, though other measures may be included. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said he believes the Internet is the most effective marketing tool to use.

Since the initiative is in its infancy, Holste said, little progress has been made so far. He expects visitors to the website will see significant changes in three to six months.

Nixon said that in a time when families are looking for value and a quality experience, the state parks and historic sites offer memorable experiences.

"Our parks represent Missouri's rich diversity of landscapes, ecosystems and cultural landmarks -- from canyons to caves, waterways to woodlands, and Civil War battlefields to artists' homes," Nixon said in a written statement. "Boosting attendance at our state parks will help preserve a vital part of our Missouri heritage. It also will help grow our tourism industry, even in light of our current economic challenges."

Sue Holst, a spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said factors such as ice storms and flooding have affected attendance.

At Trail of Tears State Park in Cape Girardeau County, heavy rainfall in March 2008 caused high water levels and seismic activity the next month damaged Boutin Lake, closing it to swimmers ever since. A trail also has been closed because of landslides. Officials say the closures have resulted in a decline in attendance at the park from 1999 to 2008, though this year the number of visitors has increased by 34 percent compared to the same period last year.

Chuck Martin, executive director of the Cape Girardeau Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, believes the decline in attendance is not because administrators' decisions at each park but because of a 15 percent decrease in state park funding during the current fiscal year, ice storms, floods and the increase of other entertainment options.

"We're in a very different day and age from when the national parks were vastly popular and entertainment options were somewhat limited," Martin said. "Today, families have so many options to choose from.

"If they can make a compelling message to the public about the economic value and opportunity to spend outdoors the parks give, then attendance could go up. But resources must be poured back into the parks for an effective message to get out there."

Lesley McDaniel, administrator at Bollinger Mill State Historic Site, is applauding Nixon's efforts.

"These sites help preserve the past and identity of Missouri," she said. "We give people a place to relax and spend a day soaking in the historic landmarks. For our residents who continually come back and for those who come from out of town for the first time, this is a place many of them may come to appreciate."

bblackwell@semissourian.com

388-3628

Pertinent addresses:

113 Bollinger Mill Road, Burfordville, MO

429 Moccasin Springs, Jackson, MO

400 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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