By JOSH BENDER
Capital News Service
LANSING — To attract new visitors and save money, many state parks in Michigan and across the Great Lakes region are updating utilities and campsites and creating programming for less traditional visitors.
That includes seek growth in usership by trying to attract non-campers.
For example, those participating in Michigan’s First Time Camper program and Ontario’s Learn to Camp program arrive to a fully set-up campsite with park employees to guide them.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) partnered with camping goods manufacturer North Face and retailer Gander Mountain to provide free equipment for the department’s two-night camping program, said Ron Olson, the department’s parks and recreation chief.
DNR’s Rec 101 programs teach new campers such skills as kayaking, paddleboarding, mountain biking and geocaching, he said. Equipment is included for all the programs.
Rec 201 programs allow experienced parkgoers to further hone their skills, he said. The goal of the programs is to sell more annual park admission passes by introducing a wealth of recreation opportunities.
The programs were introduced between 2009 and 2010, said Maia Turek, statewide recreation programmer for DNR.
Since 2011, annual park pass revenues have increased from $19 million to just shy of $26 million in 2015, according to the department.
In addition, Michigan partners with local libraries, allowing parkgoers to gain free park admission using their library card, Olson said.
Ontario’s Learn to Camp program has drawn more than 12,500 participants since it began in 2011, including 3,151 pin 2015, according to the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Nearly 60 percent of the program’s 2014 participants went on a subsequent camping trip, and 91 percent said they planned to within the next two years, according to a 2015 ministry survey.
“We want to promote camping to a different demographic that may not be using our parks currently,” said Greg Wake, acting manager of operations and development for Ontario Parks.
Parks in Michigan is investing in greener, cost-saving campgrounds, such as LED lighting and more efficient heating and insulation of buildings, Olson said.
The growing popularity of recreational vehicles influenced some of the changes in the Great Lakes region, said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, a communications manager for parks and recreation at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. In 2014 her program received $88 million in new state funding to improve buildings and other facilities.
Parks increased the number of campsites with water and sewer hook ups and upgraded the availability and wattage of electrical hook ups, Hetzel-Evans said.
“Camping looks different than it did 15, 20 years ago,” she said. Campers want to plug in electronic devices and use the flush toilets aboard their RVs.
It paid off: Ohio state parks have seen a 20 percent spike in overnight camping revenues since the improvements began two years ago, she said.
However, the revenue picture isn’t all good across the region. Some states are seeing funding evaporate.
For example, Wisconsin’s legislature and Gov. Scott Walker took away all state funding for the Wisconsin State Park System for this year. That money had comprised 20 percent of the parks’ budget, said Chris Pedretti, property services section chief for the system.
To compensate for the loss, admission fees rose.
Wisconsin increased the cost of annual admission passes by $3 for residents and out-of-state parkgoers, said Wisconsin Parks communications specialist Paul Holtan. The passes used to cost $25 for Wisconsin residents and $35 for non-residents.
The cost for one-hour admission increased from $3 to $5 and daily admission from $7 to $8, he said.
Josh Bender writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By JOSH BENDER