Rickwood Caverns still under the gun

Closing pressure down, but...

Four state parks and two golf courses targeted for closing May 1 in an announcement from Alabama State Parks director Greg Lein April 15, got a new lease on life last week. Bladon Springs, Chickasaw, Buck’s Pocket, and Paul M. Grist state parks and golf courses at Lake Point and Roland Cooper State Parks will remain open ”until further notice” Lein said.

He attributed the change to the public outcry for the parks to stay open and receive full funding, and said Gov. Bentley has instructed him to delay those closings until further notice. He also said the parks system could still face extreme measures if the budget crisis is not resolved.

While the announcement apparently relieved pressure on those six facilities, little has changed as to the longer-term status of the state parks system as a whole. In a meeting at Guntersville State Park Lodge April 20, Gov. Bentley told the crowd that the budget crisis facing the state parks and other state services is real and that residents will feel the effects if new revenue is not found, adding “If I have to call 10 special sessions over this summer, we’re going to get this problem solved.”

Now you see it, now you don’t

He continued to partially reassure the partisan crowd in the room by saying “Folks, I am not closing down Guntersville State Park,” then adding,“however, if the budget that has been presented to the Legislature raises no revenue whatever, and that budget is adopted, the Legislature will close down this state park.”

In his original announcement, Lein announced that five additional state parks would submit emergency operations plans by June 1, cutting hours and reducing costs. Those parks must show a profit this summer, he said, or face closure, either at the end of this fiscal year in September, or after Oct. 1. Those parks are Florala, Blue Springs, Roland Cooper, Frank Jackson, and Blount County’s Rickwood Caverns.

Rickwood manager Jim Russell told The Blount Countian that emergency plans were being prepared and that the threat to the park in his opinion is real. His last words on the matter were:“In my opinion, if it closes, they will never reopen it again.

The Blount Countian talked to Scott Fort, Rickwood Caverns assistant park manager, this week to see if the softening of the intent to close the May 1 list of parks had eased circumstances facing the June 1 list of parks.

“I think we’re safe until Oct. 1, providing we can improve our performance by cutting costs this summer,” he said.“I think their idea is to gauge community support and see if the park can do better this summer than it has historically done. If so, they might leave it open longer.

“What would help is if they could find enough funding to make renovations which would improve our ability to generate revenue, such as by expanding and improving the campground as they discussed doing, and even designed a plan for doing several years ago. If they would do that, we would get to where we could operate in the black, because we do well here in the summer anyway. Sometimes we have to turn away people at the campground and RV park. If it were expanded, we could definitely operate in the black. But they’d have to find enough money to make the upgrades.” Fort said the original plan called for about $1 million in expansion and improvements, but that was the figure projected several years ago.

The target for this summer, he said, was to cut costs and hours to the point that the park could operate every month in the black. The pool would close on Aug. 9 to accommodate the plan, he said, instead of extending on weekends throughout August as has been the practice in the past.