JACKSON A Northeast Mississippi lawmaker has introduced a sweeping proposal to privatize at least 10 Mississippi state parks and offload several others to cities and counties.

Senate Bill 2486, authored by Sen. Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, would overhaul how many of the state’s 25 parks operate and who oversees them in an apparent bid to address the park system’s shrinking budget and massive maintenance backlog.

Whaley, who leads the Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee, did not respond to the Daily Journal’s requests for comment.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Senate leader, says improving state parks is among his top priorities this session. He told reporters last month the parks should be more accessible to Mississippians and act as assets to bring in tourism dollars.

“You can look on TV and see Alabama advertising their state parks,” Hosemann said. “Our parks are in disrepair, by any consideration.”

Whaley’s legislation would significantly affect much of the state park system. Its key provisions include:

Leasing some parks:

  • Three regional groups of parks would be offered up for lease by private operator, including one group near the Coast and one in central Mississippi. The northeast state parks to be privatized under the legislation are Wall Doxey, J.P. Coleman, Tishomingo and Trace.

Turning some parks over to counties and cities:

  • Six parks would be conveyed by the state to the county or city government where they are located. Those parks include Tombigbee State Park in Lee County. The legislation says the parks would revert to state control if they aren’t maintained. In addition, the bill would end leases the state has with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage three parks north of Grenada.

Changing how some parks are classified:

  • Natchez State Park would become a wildlife management area, and Lake Lincoln State Park would be operated as a “fisheries lake” under the legislation. The change would allow those sites to be eligible for additional federal dollars, parks officials say.

Under SB 2486, only four state parks – Holmes, Leroy Percy, LeFleur’s Bluff and Shepard – would be managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks as they are now.

County leadership in Lee County – including Bill Benson, county administrator, and Billy Joe Holland, Board of Supervisors president – did not know about Whaley’s legislation until contacted by the Daily Journal.

Holland voiced concerns about the prospect of taking over control of Tombigbee State Park.

“That puts a lot of stuff on us, to maintain that,” Holland said. “It could be expensive. That language ‘shall,’ that puts us in a rock and a hard place.”

House leaders are also motivated to address state parks during this session, but they are taking an approach that does not involve privatization or placing parks under local control.

House Bill 152, authored by Brookhaven Republican Becky Currie and two others, would divert a small percentage of the state’s lottery proceeds – around $3 million per year, Currie said – toward improving the parks system. Currently, the Mississippi Lottery proceeds go to help fund roads and education.

Currie said park officials need $147 million to catch up with the system’s maintenance backlog, and the state simply doesn’t have that kind of money. But a “constant revenue stream” from the lottery each year could go a long way toward making improvements, she said, while avoiding tax hikes.

“We can either let them deteriorate more, or we can do something like this,” said Currie, adding the parks are a crucial asset during the pandemic, when people want to spend more time socially distanced and outdoors.

Currie said she’s opposed to privatizing parks. It could lead companies to “cherry-pick” top-performing properties, she said, while leaving others behind. “Now that we let them deteriorate, we’re going to shirk our responsibility?” she said.

Rep. Bill Kinkade, a Byhalia Republican who leads the Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Committee, said he has similar concerns. He said the parks “belong to the citizens of our state,” but he added he is not opposed to some limited privatization of services at some parks.

Kinkade told the Daily Journal he would like to see a two-phase plan that involves passing Currie’s bill to help with maintenance and a separate bill, HB 1231, to create something called the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund. The fund would use sales taxes from sporting goods stores to pay for projects in state parks and other natural areas around the state.

“To me state parks are all about state pride,” Kinkade said. “Alabama is proud of their parks, Arkansas is proud of their natural state, and their state parks. We need to upgrade.”

About 600 structures across the state park system need repairs or replacement, and the system’s staffing numbers have plummeted in recent years. Jennifer Head, budget administrator for MDWFP, said repairs are needed all over, from sewer and water systems to campsites and cabins.

“We want to be able to attract people, rather than people going elsewhere,” she said. “We want to keep them in Mississippi, or attract out-of-state travelers.”

But parks funding over the past two decades has been slashed nearly 60%, Head said, and with such a deep cut, “something’s got to give.” A legislation budget proposal for the coming year recommends trimming another $900,000 from MDWFP as a whole, or more than 15%.

Other states have tried privatizing parks, or at least outsourcing some services, with varying levels of success and pushback from the public, according to a 2019 report in Stateline, a Pew Charitable Trusts publication.

A concession company took over a shuttered state park in Alabama several years ago and successfully reopened it, offering an array of outdoor activities, the report noted. In Oklahoma the opposite happened when a developer took over a park promising revitalization, but the investments never materialized and the park shut down.

California found success years ago leasing four state parks to concessionaires, the Stateline report said. But in Tennessee, public pushback nixed a plan to outsource services at a popular state park. A Tennessee Republican state senator who opposed the deal remarked that state parks “are not our properties to sell.”

Caleb Bedillion contributed to this report.

Luke Ramseth is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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