2004 was a year of transformation in the Department of Parks. In 12 short months, Parks Commissioner George Ward and Commerce Secretary Jim Host set the department in a new direction that emphasized commonsense business principles, staff professionalism, and a customer orientation.
Early on, Commissioner Ward and his new management team developed five major department goals: to protect the natural environment and historic significance of parks, to ensure total visitor satisfaction, to develop staff professionalism, to appropriately maintain park buildings and recreational facilities, and to eliminate in four years the department’s $29 million operating deficit.
“I’m pleased about the progress that our parks family has made toward reaching these goals,” Commissioner Ward said. “I’m proud of how we have pulled together to improve the stewardship of our state parks.”
The priority of protecting the environment was put to the test early, when the new administration learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had cited Lake Barkley State Resort Park in early 2003 operating an illegal dump. Nothing was done to clean up the dump in the intervening time before the new administration took office.
The department immediately promptly set the wheels in motion to clean up the dumpsite. The taxpayers will be stuck with a $500,000 price tag for the years of neglect. An assessment of other parks revealed dumps at two other parks – Lake Cumberland and Pine Mountain. The cost of cleaning those two areas may top $500,000. A consultant will prepare a document to train park employees on proper handling and disposal of hazard waste.
The department moved with unbureaucratic speed in 2004 to protect William Whitley House State Historic Site. Commissioner Ward learned that a large farm adjacent to William Whitley was scheduled to be subdivided in an auction only four days later. In that length of time, he was able to acquire state funding to buy the adjoining lots, thus creating a buffer from the subdivision and protecting a historic cemetery. The department also allocated $600,000 to continue developing Pine Mountain Trail State Park.
Among initiatives in 100 percent visitor satisfaction was the implementation of an on line reservations service. For the first time, guests may now book state park rooms on the Internet, either directly on the parks web site or through booking engines such as Expedia. Just as importantly, travel agents may now view parks inventory and book rooms through global distribution systems such as Sabre. In less than four months, bookings through the Internet represented 2,519 room nights and $187,000 in sales. In its first full year, the system will produce $2 million in new revenue, Ward said.
In 2004, the department also began developing value-added packages, starting with a Tee’s and Zee’s golf package that combines accommodations, golf, and meals. To support its marketing of golf, the department branded its five new courses plus the Kentucky Dam Village course as the “Signature Series” of premiere golf courses.
The department also improved guest amenities, replacing bedding and old TV sets, and adding hairdryers, irons and ironing boards to guest rooms. Also, high-speed wireless Internet access was installed at Rough River Dam and Lake Barkley state resort parks, with plans to expand ultimately to all other resorts.
A new emphasis on outstanding food already is paying dividends. Gov. Ernie Fletcher announced in August that the state park system would for the first time begin buying fresh produce directly from local farmers. Moreover, several Frankfort-based parks chefs won awards. During the Kentucky State Fair, Chef Russell Blair received the only perfect score during an “iron skillet” competition. He teamed up with three other parks chefs to win recognition during a Meeting Planners International competition in Louisville.
This talent is being used to improve food quality and operations at resort parks and Frankfort government office cafeterias. Two such cafeterias opened under parks management in 2004 – one at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the other at the new Transportation Building. The Capitol Annex Café is benefiting from a badly needed facelift. Meanwhile, the department also took over the food operation at the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea.
Among initiatives in enhancing staff professionalism was a contract to provide sales training to park front-line parks employees. The provider, Signature Inc., is a leader in hospitality sales training. The training immediately increased the number of inquiries that sales staff converted into confirmed reservations. The training will result in several million dollars a year in new revenue, Commissioner Ward said.
Among actions to maintain parks buildings were beautification projects at the entrances and central focal points of parks. The projects involved landscaping, improved signs, and other touches designed to make a good first impression. Moreover, the department set aside $1 million in unspent funds for its maintenance pool. The department also identified at each park the top 10 priority capital improvements. The most critical – typically addressing roofs, heating systems, and water and sewer plants – are receiving priority funding.
The department took giant strides to hack away at the park’s $29 million deficit. Staff safety training is expected to sharply reduce the inflated worker’s compensation claims. In 2003, parks reported 311 injuries, costing the department more than $1 million. The goal is to reduce claims to $300,000 a year.
A poorly managed procurement credit-card program has been sharply curtailed, resulting in six-month savings on supply purchases of more than $400,000.
The department also took control of its fleet of vehicles. More than 70 junker vehicles were disposed of, thus taking them off the insurance rolls. All other vehicles were turned over to the Transportation Cabinet for management, resulting in newer, safer vehicles for state parks.
Contract construction workers have been replaced with private sector labor for projects such as renovation of guest rooms. Projects will now be completed much more promptly. Ward noted that two recent renovation bids promised completion in 12 weeks, compared to the four or five months that would have been typical with contract parks labor.
By scheduling labor to meet anticipated occupancy, leaving unnecessary positions unfilled, and encouraging volunteer labor, the department plans to save $5 million annually in labor costs. Savings of $500,000 are expected through an energy conservation program.
In the area of marketing, the department expects to gain $1 million as a result of a push to publicize state parks in the AAA TourBook. Nearly all resort parks are listed in the 2005 edition, with support from a full-page ad, and a presence on AAA’s web site.
The department’s web site is in line for substantial improvements to make it more user friendly and helpful to web surfers.
Commissioner Ward said he is eager to keep the momentum going in 2005. Among top goals in 2005 is the establishment of a reservations system for campgrounds.
“This will address the most common complaint among out-of-state campers,” Ward said. “We are losing many campers who understandably don’t want to travel to a state park campground without an assurance that campsites are available to them.”