I stumbled across this article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette... as a hopeful backer of the reopening of the Laurel Mountain Ski Area, I'm becoming more pessimistic that a long term solution can be found with the current regime of idiots operating the state and the DCNR. It is amazing that every neighboring state has gotten at least a 10 year jump start on us.
Pennsylvania looks at lodges
Sunday, May 29, 2005
By David Bear, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pennsylvania has 117 state parks, but other than basic cabins in several of them, none can accommodate overnight visitors who don't bring their own tent or RV.
By comparison, some state parks in neighboring Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland boast full-service resort lodges.
Arguments have been made for decades in Pennsylvania about why state parks should stay out of the hotel business. Environmentalists oppose compromising pristine natural surroundings with resort development. And hotel/motel operators don't want to compete with the state for visitor dollars.
Yet park systems in neighboring states have apparently resolved these arguments because visits to their state parks have climbed steadily, with robust occupancy rates in their resorts.
Now, Pennsylvania is looking to get in on the act. The state has hired consultants to evaluate the construction of small rustic lodges in the newly acquired Erie Bluffs State Park in Erie County and S.B. Elliott State Park in Clearfield County, along with a privately developed project adjacent to Prince Gallitzin State Park in Cambria County.
According to John Wiediger, chief of operations and management for Pennsylvania State Parks, "the idea is not to make these facilities destinations in themselves. Instead of visitors spending their time at a resort, we would want them to get out into nature. The environment should be the attraction."
The consultant reports will be coming back over the next few months, but any decision is likely years away. It would involve considerable discussion and most likely approval from the legislature. Considering all the issues and interest groups involved, that decision won't come without trepidation.
The state is weathering tough economic times, and finding public resources to develop these lodges won't be easy. Building a hotel or resort these days requires considerable sophistication, design sensitivity and commitment to quality construction. Once in operation, success demands a properly trained staff as well as first-rate amenities, upkeep and marketing.
That would be a huge challenge for the state to manage on its own, and completing and running these projects would most likely require concessionaires to do much of the heavy lifting.
As far as developing marketing expertise, there's a lot to be learned. Consider the first impression people now get when they visit the Pennsylvania's Bureau of State Parks Web site (www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks). Most of the home page is taken up with an advisory that the parks system "is operating under tight fiscal constraints ... [requiring] some reductions in services or partial closure of certain facilities."
Contrast that message conveyed on the Web site of the Ohio State Park System (www.dnr.state.oh.us), which is alive with inviting opportunities.
Over the past four decades, Ohio has built small, full-service resort lodges in nine of its 74 state parks, all with upscale trappings, such as conference centers and golf courses. The newest one, which opened this month, the 109-room lodge and conference center at Geneva State Park on Lake Erie, was largely funded by Ashtabula County.
Ohio's state park accommodation options don't end there. At 15 parks, in addition to camp sites there is a selection of family accommodations, from cabins, both fully equipped and rustic, to platform tents, tepees, yurts, even RV rentals.
The Buckeye State hasn't done it without assistance, opting to outsource many of its hospitality operations. Hans Desai, vice president of state parks and resorts at Xanterra, the concessionaire company that manages lodge operations and marketing at seven Ohio state parks, says the arrangement has been beneficial.
"[The lodges] have been successful financially," he says. "But more than that, they bring a greater diversity of visitors to the parks."
Desai says the resorts are regionally popular. While most guests are from Ohio, "the parks along our borders are attracting out-of-state visitors, such as Salt Fork and Burr Oak near Pittsburgh."
Ohio is not alone in developing its hospitality.
In the aftermath of the coal industry recession of the 1960s, West Virginia used federal economic development money to create a system of state parks and construct resort lodges in several of them. In 1970, the state opened lodges at Pipestem, in the state's southeast corner, and Canaan Valley. Canaan Valley has grown into a 250-room facility with a golf course, ski slope and dozens of staff-maintained cabins, while Pipestem has a 143-room lodge and 26 cabins.
West Virginia also operates smaller full-service lodges at other parks, Blackwater Falls, Hawks Nest, North Bend, Twin Falls and Tygart Lake. Its oldest resort, at Cacapon State Park near Berkeley Springs, was built in the 1930s but has been extensively refurbished.
Ken Caplinger, department chief of West Virginia State Parks, says the resort parks are consistently successful. "Our state parks average 55 percent self-sufficiency as far as revenues generated, while the resort parks are closer to 90 percent self-sufficient."
Caplinger says West Virginia considers the money it puts into its state parks a good investment rather than a subsidy. In addition to attracting out-of-state visitors, the facilities improve the quality of life for its own citizens through employment opportunities and by generating revenue.
"By and large, these parks were situated in places where there wasn't much else going on," Caplinger says. "Even today in many of those places, the state park remains the largest employer."
Maryland is something of a newcomer to state park accommodations. In March 1998 it opened its first and only facility. Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort is situated in on 243-acre Lake Habeeb in a 3,000-acre state park, just off I-68 about 10 miles east of Cumberland.
In addition to its 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, Rocky Gap features a 217-room, AAA Four Diamond lodge; a newly expanded, 15,000-square-foot conference; and a full service spa, all managed by Crestline Hotels. According to David Sanderson, Rocky Gap's director of sales and marketing, after six seasons the resort continues to live up to expectations, and is often rented in its entirety by various groups and organizations. "The majority of our visitors come from the Baltimore area, but we do get lots of guests from out of the state, especially from Washington D.C. and the Pittsburgh area."
With its state park visitation falling, does Pennsylvania see the writing on the wall? Could the state better capitalize on its bountiful natural resources through enhanced tourism and economic growth rather than logging or drilling? The state boasts an abundance of nature and a lack of visitors. While it is important to have places Pennsylvanians can go to experience nature, is it necessary that every acre of state park devoted to them? What about all those people who could care less about seeing an elk, those for whom the only bird of interest is the one they enter on their score card? Instead of providing state park facilities in Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland with our tourism dollars, might we entice some of their citizens to take an accommodating visit in a Pennsylvania park?
Perhaps, if we can learn quickly from the experience of our neighboring states. While legitimate questions remain to be answered about the "if we build it they will come" strategy, it's clear that if we don't, they won't.