Jockeys Ridge State Park visitor center
An improvements project at the Jockeys Ridge State Park visitor center is one of numerous projects funded by the Connect NC bond program. Mark Hibbs / Coastal Review Online

by Kirk Ross, Coastal Review Online

With tighter budgets ahead and a pandemic shutdown affecting operations and cutting revenue, planners at the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources are working on how to best maintain aquariums, parks and attractions and still move ahead with expansion and repair projects already in the pipeline.

The department’s budget office estimates that lost revenue for the first half of fiscal year 2021, which started July 1, to be $3.75 million for parks and $5.33 million for the state’s aquariums.

DNCR spokesperson Michele Walker cautioned that in the current environment, estimates are difficult to pin down.

“Keep in mind that this is only an estimate; there are a lot of unknowns in this equation so these numbers could end up looking different by the end of the year,” Walker said in an email exchange with Coastal Review Online.

So far, she said, both the parks and aquariums have been able to retain permanent full-time staff and some temporary staff have been hired on at busy parks.

Walker said the park system has played an important role during the pandemic: “State parks have been hugely popular and are providing a place of respite for NC residents during this time.”

But the state’s three aquariums are a different story. They’ve remained closed since March 17, when tighter, statewide stay-at-home orders took effect.

Walker said that’s meant a delay for a planned expansion at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and a shift of priorities for the aquarium staff from in-person activities inside to improving outdoor experiences and online programming, such as virtual day camps.

Inside, Walker said the priorities for the aquariums and Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head are to care for the aquariums’ creatures, continue assistance for stranded marine animals and maintain the tanks, exhibits and facilities for when the crowds return.

Leaning on bonds

The scope of future budget cuts is tied both to the course of the coronavirus pandemic and the extent of federal aid, but departments throughout state government are looking at priorities and how and where to find savings.

While it is delaying the Fort Fisher aquarium expansion, DNCR is one of several departments that will be able to keep some of its key projects funded and moving forward through the Connect NC bond program, a 10-year, $2 billion infrastructure funding program approved by the voters in 2016. This fall, the state will sell a $400 million tranche of bonds.

More than half of the Connect NC money is aimed at University of North Carolina system projects, with the rest distributed for state and local parks, the North Carolina Zoo, National Guard facilities, community colleges, state building repairs and water and sewer projects.

Legislation tied to the referendum sets aside 5% of the money for the zoo and the state parks system. Of the $100 million, it earmarks $25 million for the zoo and $75 million for 45 parks projects around the state.

A recent update by the State Office of Management and Budget shows that of the $971.5 million allocated so far, about 3% has gone to parks projects. Going forward, that pace will pick up with 6% of the allocations from the anticipated sale of the $400 million in bonds in October set aside for parks.

Park projects, projected costs and bond funds allocated so far:

  • Beech Creek Bog State Natural Area, $416,131 for Land Acquisition, fully funded
  • Dismal Swamp State Park, $990,750.00 for Land Acquisition, $850;
  • Elk Knob State Park, $1,082,991 for land acquisition, fully funded;
  • Haw River State Park, $1,463,915 for land acquisition, fully funded;
  • Mayo River State Park, $750,000 for land acquisition, $545,368;
  • Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, $1,500,000 for land acquisition, $743,803;
  • Mountains-to-Sea State Trail, $4,536,962 for land acquisition, $2,300,988;
  • New River State Park, $675,000 for land acquisition, fully funded;
  • Weymouth Woods State Nature Preserve, $428,250 for land acquisition, unfunded;
  • Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, $1,272,464, fully funded;
  • Morrow Mountain State Park, $1,537,500 for new rental cabins, unfunded;
  • Carolina Beach State Park, $855,000 for campground improvements, $273,622
  • Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, $692,400 for campground improvements, fully funded;
  • Goose Creek State Park, $1,477,500 for campground improvements, fully funded;
  • Gorges State Park, $3,483,285 for campground improvements, $359,034;
  • Jones Lake State Park, $1,319,974 for campground improvements, fully funded.
  • Lake Norman State Park, $2,307,000 for campground improvements, $894,500;
  • Lake Waccamaw State Park, $1,506,000 for campground improvements, unfunded;
  • Merchants Millpond State Park, $870,750 for campground improvements, unfunded:
  • Raven Rock State Park, $1,125,000 for campground improvements, fully funded;
  • Eno River State Park, $3,837,682 for visitor center, $174,517;
  • Falls Lake State Recreation Area, $789,750 for Beaver Dam Community Building, unfunded;
  • Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, $456,775 for bathrooms building, fully funded;
  • Jockeys Ridge State Park, $751,500 for visitor center and exhibit hall, $164,150;
  • Medoc Mountain State Park, $1,383,750 for education and community building, unfunded;
  • Pettigrew State Park, $2,830,500 for visitors center and museum, $94,022
  • Pilot Mountain State Park, $4,481,850 visitor center, $3,777,419;
  • Singletary Lake State Park, $575,250 for visitor contact station, $216,544;
  • Stone Mountain State Park, $1,338,000 for visitor center improvements, unfunded;
  • William B. Umstead State Park, $1,725,000 for community building, unfunded;
  • Lake James State Park, $3,021,000, for visitor center, $306,555;
  • Carvers Creek State Park, $5,700,750 for Long Valley day use improvements, $2,325,715;
  • Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, $3,000,000 for campground improvements, fully funded;
  • Kerr Lake State Recreation Area, $3,750,000 for multiple renovations, unfunded;
  • Chimney Rock State Park, $492,817 for Rumbling Bald and World’s Edge day use areas, fully funded;
  • Crowders Mountain State Park, $750,000 for expanded parking at Linville and Shorts Lake, fully funded;
  • Deep River State Trail, $1,281,000 for public access development, unfunded;
  • Grandfather Mountain State Park, $1,501,500, Profile trail head phase 2, unfunded;
  • Hanging Rock State Park, $2,100,000 for Vade Mecum improvements, $119,475;
  • Lower Haw River State Natural Area, $203,250 for Bynum day used development, unfunded;
  • Lumber River State Park, $2,628,750 for Wire Pasture public access, $150,424;
  • Mount Mitchell State Park, $600,000 for summit improvements, $75,199;
  • South Mountains State Park, $2,250,000 for Clear Creek Campground, unfunded;
  • Fort Macon State Park, $135,000 for cannon project, fully funded;
  • Hammocks Beach State Park, $1,125,000 for mainland development project, $51,311

Conservation fund concerns

Walker said there is concern going forward about the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, or CWMTF, and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, or PARTF, the state’s two main conservation funds.

Although the Connect NC bond includes projects in both areas, demand for grants from the funds from local governments remains high, and in some cases the funds are being used in conjunction with the bond funds and could prove a drag on those projects if not available.

Walker said CWMTF currently has 144 pending applications requesting $82 million in grants. PARTF has 66 eligible local government applications pending this year with a total of $20.5 million requested.

Annual allocations for both funds have been reduced to cover past budget gaps. Walker said a similar move during the pandemic would come at the wrong time.

“The General Assembly has worked with us in recent years to maintain or increase the amounts in both trust funds and has continued to find money to invest in them. We believe they understand the importance and significance of these programs for North Carolina,” Walker said.

“We are concerned about potential future reductions because PARTF funds are essential for ongoing maintenance of heavily used park facilities, and for completion of projects already underway with ConnectNC bond funding.”

Both funds have assisted in building the trails and greenways that are proving so valuable in the pandemic, she said. “These local resources have been critical for citizens during COVID-19 who needed access for recreation, fresh air and for people to safely venture out. The need is stronger than ever.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of the chief  budget writers in the House and a longtime backer of the conservation funds, said he doubts that the funds will see any additional money allocated as happened in years past, but should be able to maintain their regular appropriations.

In last year’s budget plan, more than $20 million in nonrecurring money was budgeted for the two funds each year. The ongoing budget stalemate between Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative leaders put that plan on hold and now any additional funds except those needed to cover administrative expenses and ongoing grants obligations are unlikely.

“At this point, I have no expectations that either of the trust funds will get their usual additional nonrecurring funds. I also don’t think we’ll need to strip them of any recurring funds,” McGrady, who opted to not seek another term, said earlier this week.

McGrady said he also doesn’t see any other major parks or natural resources money coming when the legislature returns in early September for a session to make necessary budget adjustments. That session, he said, is likely to be brief and narrowly focused.

“The adjournment resolution is very restrictive,” McGrady said.

“Assuming the governor calls us back into session, I see that session as being pretty short in light of the need for candidates, some of which are incumbents, to get out on the campaign trail.”

Editor’s note: This article, which is a content share from Coastal Review Online, has been updated slightly to list more park projects across all of the state.

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