Gov. Nikki Haley wants South Carolina's state parks to generate enough revenue to cover operating expenses by the end of 2013, something no other state park system in the country has done consistently.
South Carolina's state park system, a division of the state tourism agency, already has come a long way in its bid for self-sufficiency -- from covering 66 percent of its operating expenses with park revenue in 2002 to 83 percent last year. The state government's contribution to park operations has shrunk from $8 million to $4 million during that period, and the goal is to zero it out in two years.
Beaufort County's Hunting Island State Park ranks among the most lucrative and popular parks in the state and serves as "kind of a poster child" for the park system, according Marion Edmonds, communications director for the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.
The park makes about $2.8 million annually, enough to cover its operating expenses with about $1 million dollars leftover to put in the state's park service fund, which had about $20 million in it last year. Myrtle Beach and Huntington Beach parks are the only others to consistently bring in more than Hunting Island.
Five years ago, Edmonds said the park system could only rely on state funds and pooling revenue from Hunting Island and the other coastal parks to pay for day-to-day operations of the state's other 47 parks.
With Haley's goal in mind, Edmonds said more inland parks need to chip in.
"We're not focusing on four or five parks to make more revenue to carry more of the burden," Edmonds said. As of last year, 10 parks -- including Table Rock and Devil's Fork parks -- were brining money into the fund. He added three other parks are close to coming out of the red.
The pooled fund is particularly important to make improvements to and maintains less-visited parks and historic sites.
A PRT study indicates overnight visitors to state parks already account for $49 million in spending inside and outside the parks each year.
Hunting Island saw 1.2 million visitors last year and has remained a top earner -- usually second or third to Myrtle Beach and Huntington Beach -- despite losing 90 percent of its rental cabins to beach erosion in the last eight years. Only one of its 10 cabins remains.
"That didn't happen overnight," Edmonds said. "In fact, camping has always been the highest (revenue) generator."
The park's 200 camp sites have raked in $1.2 million a year since 2009, while each cabin only brought in about $25,000 a year. Other revenues are made through daily admission fees and the park passport program, which was recently restructured.
The new tiered system offers entry into a variety of parks based on price. Coastal parks -- Hunting Island included -- are in the more expensive tiers.
The statewide passport, which allows entry to the five popular coastal parks, jumped from $50 to $75 on Jan. 1 There's also a new $50 inland park passport for the other 42 parks, and a $99 passport that includes all parks, free historic home tours, free swimming at Upstate parks and a $10 parks gift card.
Hunting Island State Park made $800,000 from daily admission fees, and passport holders brought in another $189,000 -- second only to Myrtle Beach last year.
For now, Edmonds said the park system has no plans to increase admission fees on Huntington Island.
If South Carolina reaches its goal, its park system will rank among the most efficient in the country. According to data included in a report PRT compiled and recently submitted to Haley's office, only two state park systems in the country -- Vermont and New Hampshire -- covered all of their expenses with park revenue in 2009. Oklahoma was the only other state that raised more than 90 percent of its operating budget through park revenue.
Yet Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and state parks director Phil Gaines are confident it can be done.
"I think we have to do it," Gaines said. "The days are over of saying, 'Give me taxpayer money.'"
Parrish figured if the agency could pull in an extra 50 cents from every visitor each day they're in the parks, it would add up to $4 million per year.
State parks not only are looking for ways to be self-sufficient, they also need to do $154 million worth of maintenance. Some of the critical big-ticket items are $1 million for a new marina at Dreher Island, $3.75 million to replace water and sewer systems at Hunting Island, Oconee, Santee and Table Rock; and $9.39 million to upgrade campground electrical systems to accommodate new recreational vehicles. Those projects also could help generate new revenue.
Parrish hopes that if the agency becomes more self-sufficient in the next few years, legislators will be more willing to spring for some of those projects.