Originally created 04/23/04

State park looks for ways to bring in more money



MCCORMICK, S.C. - Hickory Knob State Resort Park was built on the banks of Lake Thurmond to spur economic growth in rural McCormick County.

Instead of providing the expected catalyst for development, Hickory Knob is one of two parks in South Carolina that are running deep in red ink, despite the state park's scenic 18-hole golf course, conference center, full-service restaurant, tennis courts, shooting range, cabins and lakeside campgrounds.

"We just had our biggest week before and during the Masters Tournament," said South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism District 4 Manager Lew Cato, who oversees 12 state parks in western South Carolina. "We have a lot of family, social groups and business groups that use the park."

But the golfers, hikers and skeet shooters aren't enough to cover all the costs at Hickory Knob, so state parks officials have proposed bringing in private concessionaires to run all or portions of the park.

This could be a tough blow to a county that is already losing John de la Howe School, its third largest employer, because of South Carolina's ongoing fiscal crisis.

For the fourth year in a row, the state parks agency is facing budget cuts, forcing officials to consider privatization.

Combined, Hickory Knob and Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in Charleston - the site of the first successful colony in South Carolina - are losing nearly $1 million a year.

Last week, state Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater, introduced legislation that would allow the agency to do privatization at parks, but the Legislature needs to give the measure a final stamp of approval.

With parks such as Hickory Knob running with a reduced staff of only about 30 people, privatization might be the only way to save more money, said Marion Edmonds, a spokesman for the South Carolina State Park Service.

"How we've dealt with the budget cuts up to this point is by letting many of our part-time and seasonal personnel go," Mr. Edmonds said.

"We've had to change the structure of the agency some, but it's not all a bad thing."

At Charles Towne Landing State Park, letting a private food chain manage the snack bar that was run by park staff has worked well, he said.

"We would also be looking at retail operations - park stores, tackle shops and marina-style operations - that have a potential to bring in more money," Mr. Edmonds said. "Privatization is one more tool where we can offer more to the public more reasonably, with equal or better service."

Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395 or karen.ethridge@augustachronicle.com.