A five year commitment to improving Tombigbee State Park ended with Toyota Mississippi announcing it would help rebuild a previously closed beach.
More than 500 volunteers registered to assist in the project, according to Emily Wilemon-Holland. Toyota Mississippi President Sean Suggs said that when they first started the project, they had 700 members, and to have 500 show up in the last year was proof of the joy and commitment volunteers had to the project.
“Most of the people you see out here had a full time job they worked yesterday, and they’re here volunteering to make this community better, so it’s been an outstanding experience and great joy,” Suggs said.
Toyota Mississippi chose to partner with Tombigbee State Park as part of their National Public Lands Day back in 2015 and made a $250,000 commitment to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
“One of the biggest things to note for today is that in 1999, the state parks closed their swimming and beaches, and today, we are announcing they are reopening it here,” Wilemon-Holland said.
This is Toyota’s fifth and final year hosting the event, and Tombigbee State Park Manager Jeff Rosamond said it was bittersweet to see the partnership end. Rosamond said since the partnership started, there have been marked improvements, and the park has seen a 59 percent rise in occupancy and brought in 44 percent more revenue as a result. While he is thankful for the volunteers and team leaders, he said he believes the relationships formed from the partnership will remain in some form due to the connections many employees have made with the park.
“We’re going to miss this event and Toyota support, but I have faith that they will not completely leave us,” Rosamond said. “... I think the park means a lot to them and to the employees, so I don’t foresee our partnership just fading away.”
While the beach still has to be finished this year, Rosamond said he hopes the beach will be open to the public by next year. Next steps will include lowering the lake at the end of the fishing season, dredging it out, building a retaining wall and creating a sand bottom, according to Wilemon-Holland.
Environmental specialist Sean McCarthy said this year would be putting finishing touches on previous work. McCarthy led the projects team, which consists of Phillip Williams, Joel Patterson, John Paul Blaylock, Daniel Stegall, Joe Monaghan, Mark Jeanfrau, Laura George, Derric Morrison and Nathan Tutor.
Volunteers participated in tasks such as landscaping around cabins and the front entrance, sodding, painting and staining shelters, staining exercise stations, and spreading mulch and sand around different locations. McCarthy said that he kept declining park funding in mind with the projects and selected projects, such as laying down mulch, sanding and staining, that would not require more maintenance on a limited park staff.
“We wanted to make sure this year, being our final year, that we definitely leave the park in better shape than when we got here,” McCarthy said.
For volunteer and assembly worker Hannah Griffin, this was her first year being free to volunteer and she said she was glad to come out.
“I like to see Toyota helping the community in their projects and volunteering like they do, so I like to get together with my fellow team members and do things like this,” Griffin said.
Kathryn Ragsdale, manager of corporate communications, organized the volunteer events alongside McCarthy and said she was most excited to see team members take ownership of projects. Ragsdale has previously worked with Toyota Missouri and said she was used to see 20 to 30 volunteers, so seeing this many was exciting.
Ragsdale said when they first started the project, some employees mentioned not knowing about the park, and she hopes with the renovations they will be able to open the park back up for swimming one day and draw more people.
“This is year five of our project, and yet this park will need ongoing maintenance, ongoing upkeep, so I hope what the community sees is that there’s going to be an opportunity for other companies to step in or other groups to step in,” Ragsdale said.
Since starting the project, Toyota MS has made great strides in improving the park, according to a press release. Among a long list of major projects over the five year period includes constructing a tee-ball field, installing new courts, upgrading the primitive camps and various pavilions, installing erosion barriers and upgrading the disc golf course and building a bridge connecting and reopening previously closed trails.