State investing in upgrades to state park
Lake Bistineau State Park had a rough year in 2017, bringing in the lowest visitation among all Louisiana state parks. Among the causes attributed to its recent decline were a major loss of funding, the persistent issue of giant salvinia, and the ensuing water drawdowns.
However, the recently appointed Assistant Secretary of State Parks Gene Reynolds is confident that now is the time for the Webster Parish park to experience a turnaround.
Reynolds held a meeting Friday morning with state and local park employees at the Lake Bistineau boat launch to iron out plans for several repairs and additions coming to the park in the near future. Several local citizens also attended, and they were the first to hear the details of upcoming enhancements.
First, newly renovated cabins will open October 22, and reservations can already be made now. By the spring of 2019, the old beach near the boat launch will be reinstalled and open to the public. Lastly, a new splash park will be put in place for kids and adults alike.
For anyone aware of the recent history of Louisiana state parks, the first question to arise from these announcements would most likely be the issue of funding. According to Reynolds, about $54 million in state park funds was “swept away” by the legislature between 2008 and 2015.
“When you do that, you have to lay off people, and when you lay off people, the maintenance goes away,” Reynolds said. “But we’re past those days.”
In the past year, a crucial statutory dedication in the Louisiana budget, referred to as “729,” was recovered. This ensures entry fee money from the state parks stays in the parks budget for maintenance and upkeep, and $4 million has already come from that dedication statewide. Additionally, with the help of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the state parks acquired $16 million from BP as part of a legal settlement.
“So this year, we’re going to put $20 million statewide into our parks,” Reynolds said. “There will be over a million dollars here at Lake Bistineau.”
Some of that money has already been spent at Bistineau, as work teams from the state parks system have come in and provided a “facelift” for the facilities to match the cabins and new lodge. Cliff Melius, director of operations and facilities for the state parks system, said the relatively new idea of traveling work teams will bring the system critical savings.
“We have gone out and created traveling teams to go throughout the parks in Louisiana, and by doing that, we’ve been able to free up a lot of money,” Melius said. “So instead of contracting [projects] out, we’ve managed to save about $4.5 million by doing the work in-house.”
With these new sources of funds, Lake Bistineau State Park can now begin to incorporate new ideas to bring in more visitors.
“We’re looking at bringing back the beach that everybody remembers,” Melius said. “We have some people who might be interested in donating the sand to us. We’re going to do the work in-house – we’ve got the equipment. I can commit to you that by springtime, there’s going to be a beach out here. There’s no doubt.”
Melius said he was part of the team who installed the system’s first splash park at Tickfaw State Park. Once it was up and running, he said the park saw a 40 percent increase in visitation solely from that addition.
“That’s the kind of thing we want to bring to Bistineau,” he said. “This is really exciting. Everybody remembers the swimming pool that used to be here, but with a splash park we don’t have to have lifeguards, so we can run it nine months out of the year instead of just three. Kids and adults absolutely love it.”
Two common themes throughout the meeting were diversifying the park’s offerings to show people “it’s not just about the lake” and creating more self-generated revenue so the park is not wholly dependent on state funding.
“If you have to rely on the state general fund, you never know what might happen,” Reynolds said.
Citizens in attendance participated in a brainstorming session with Reynolds and parks staff, discussing everything from a booster club and online marketing to school field trips and tournament fishing.
Also present were Louisiana Senator Ryan Gatti and the newly elected Louisiana Representative Wayne McMahen. Both legislators spoke briefly to express relief that Reynolds, a native of northwest Louisiana, had been selected to direct the parks system.
“This is home for me,” Reynolds said. “I love Lake Bistineau, I love this park. Our goal is to take the money we have now and enhance the park to where people want to come. If we do that, the visitation comes up, and the more money comes to the park, the more money gets put back into the park. And it just perpetuates from there.”
Bistineau saw 27,000 visitors in 2017, compared to the most-visited Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, which saw roughly 250,000. Reynolds said with the new funds, cabins, and beach, a realistic mark for the next year would be 25-30 percent visitation growth, with room for even more improvement from there.
“We’ve bottomed out, and now we’re going to start climbing out,” he said.
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