If you’re an out-of-state tourist visiting Connecticut and feel like catching some sun at our Hammonasset State Park beach on a summer Saturday, it’s gonna set you back a tidy $22. (That’s $9 more than a Connecticut resident will pay.)
The only state in New England where you’d get hit with a higher fee for a single weekend day visit to a state park would be in Rhode Island, where a non-resident would have to cough up $28. Even New York’s fees are lower than ours.
But hey, it could be worse. Just a few years back, the legislature was so hungry for cash that it doubled all state park fees. The outrage that generated forced lawmakers to scale back the increase, so Connecticut park fees are now only 33 percent higher than they were five years ago.
“Yes, generally speaking, our park fees may be higher than many of our surrounding states,” agrees Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
In New Hampshire, a state beach park parking fee is $15 for in-state and out-of-state folks alike. New York’s Orient Beach State Park on Long Island charges $8 or $10 per car per day depending on whether it’s a weekday or weekend. In Massachusetts, the top state park entrance fee is $7 no matter where you’re from.
All of which raises a question, now that Connecticut’s launched its $27 million campaign to lure tourists here, about whether state parks here are at a competitive disadvantage compared to most of the states around us.
Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, believes that this state’s park tourism would have been in serious trouble if the plan to double all park fees had gone through.
“We were one of the many groups concerned that we were pricing ourselves out of competition with other states,” Hammerling says. He says it also seemed “counterintuitive” to raise fees so high in the middle of a recession that Connecticut residents might not bother going to the parks.
With the scaled-back fee system, Hammerling argues that Connecticut’s parks can compete because they are “pretty special places.”
“We can say [to outsiders] that it’s worth the trip,” Hammerling adds.
Schain says his agency’s officials “believe the parks are a great value, scenic and well maintained, and remain convenient destinations offering a wide variety of attractions and amenities.”
While that may sound like something directly out of a state travel brochure, it is true Connecticut parks are pretty popular. About two million people a year visit Hammonasset, Connecticut’s most popular park, and the annual total for all of our state parks is approximately eight million, according to Schain.
There is one thing about those park fee increases that still bothers activists like Hammerling: none of the extra money is being dedicated to maintaining or improving state parks and forests.
State lawmakers boosted the park fees because they were desperate for money to help solve a fiscal crisis, which meant all that money went into the state’s general fund budget. Before 2009, all the money paid in entrance and parking fees was directed toward keeping those parks up and improving them.
“We’re certainly concerned that, despite the fee increase, we’re not seeing an increase in investment in the parks,” he says.
Schain acknowledges there is “not necessarily a direct correlation” now between the money people pay at park gates and the money spent on the parks. But he says lawmakers and the governor “did maintain funding levels” for the parks and state forests.
Despite that little park funding problem, Hammerling doesn’t think the state is wrong for spending that $27 million on an ad campaign to promote tourism and economic development.
“Having a marketing campaign for Connecticut is very important,” he says. “It’s about time we made that level of investment.”
And maybe all those expensive ads will help overcome any reluctance a tourist might feel about paying our jumped-up fees.
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