St. Marys — State officials announced plans to invest $88.5 million to upgrade and modernize trails, campgrounds and recreational facilities in Ohio's state parks during the next two years at news conferences Wednesday at Grand Lake St. Marys State Park and Indian Lake State Park.
Locally, Grand Lake will see improvements in the modernization of campsights, improvement of shower facilities and restrooms and a new splash pad for youth. The investment is the largest ever into Ohio natural resources.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources James Zehringer told a large crowd at Grand Lake that it was a chance for residents to see their tax dollars at work.
“Ohio has some of the best natural resources in the country,” Zehringer said. “However, they were built a long time ago when campers were smaller and didn't require 50 amp hookups. We want to bring back our state parks to something we can be proud of.”
State Senate President Keith Faber, who Zehringer largely credited for securing the funding along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said it was a wise investment of taxpayer dollars.
“This governor gets it,” Faber said. “He has worked hard at eliminating an $8 billion deficit and has brought jobs to Ohio. He has managed the budget well and made it possible for us to invest long-term. One of our greatest economic development structures is our state parks. It makes the quality of life issue better for Ohio.”
State Rep. Jim Buchy said Ohio was one of only seven state park systems that did not charge an entry fee and that it is a wise investment.
“As we create more jobs, we have more opportunity for affordable, first class recreation,” Buchy said.
Zehringer said the large investment was “unprecedented” and that all state officials involved planned to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
“We are in the process of identifying critical needs and prioritizing projects,” Zehringer said. “We will make sure it is done systematically.”
Some work has already begun, such as improvements to camping areas at Grand Lake. Residents can offer ideas at ohiostateparks.org for improvements to be made or other recommendations.
“With the money comes a lot of responsibility, and we want to make sure everything is well-thought out,” Zehringer said.
Zehringer said Ohio has 74 state parks and that 59 of Ohio's 88 counties had at least one state park. Grand Lake was one of the original 19 state parks in the state of Ohio.
Ohio State Parks Chief Glen Cobb said that no new facilities are planned with the money.
“It is an exciting time for us working with state parks,” Cobb said. “We have some of the best parks but they were in great need of modernization.”
Cobb said parks funding is typically $15 million to $20 million every two years.
Ohio Travel Association Executive Director Melinda Huntley said that outdoor recreation is an “unseen giant” and that the Ohio economy will reap benefits.
“We long for the outdoors,” Huntley said. “I don't think that people realize that there are twice as many people who camp, fish or hike as there are people that participate in organized sports.”
Zehringer said funds for the projects would start being released July 1.