Michigan’s state parks have needed repairs for years. Then the pandemic hit. 

Federal COVID relief dollars could fix aging roads, campgrounds

By: - December 11, 2021 7:29 am

Hoffmaster State Park dune overlook walkway | Marla R. Miller

A patchwork of filled potholes welcomes visitors to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, on Lake Michigan’s coast, as they drive into the wooded park that features miles of sandy beach and coastal dunes, hiking trails, a campground and popular visitor center.

The Muskegon-area park, open year-round with designated cross-country ski trails in the winter, attracted 1.3 million visitors in 2021, up from an average of 650,000 annual visitors in 2019. The park’s employees have done their best to patch the day-use roads — some date back to the park’s opening in the 1970s — but they have continued to deteriorate to the point of no repair.

Hoffmaster’s $3.5 million road restoration project finally made its way to the top of a $264 million maintenance backlog in Michigan’s state parks. The engineering phase of the road project is underway. 

Initially, the road work was going to be done in phases, starting with high-priority areas first. It could be completed at once if the Michigan Legislature approves using $250 million in COVID-19 relief funds for capital improvement and maintenance projects throughout Michigan’s state parks system.  

The plans are to address the roads throughout the park, including the campground,” said Pat Whalen, unit manager of P.J. Hoffmaster State Park/Bass River Recreation Area. 

Hoffmaster State Park entrance | Marla R. Miller

The main day-use road will be first. “We have put twice the amount of hot patch repair on it this year. We used 65 tons of hot patch,” Whalen said.

It’s a similar story at state parks across Michigan’s 102-year-old parks system. The Michigan state parks system includes 103 state parks, along with state recreation areas, campgrounds, boat launches, marinas, fishing piers and historic sites. Several parks have historic structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal era in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Crumbling roads, outdated bathhouses and inadequate electrical service in campgrounds prompt ongoing complaints from day visitors and campers, especially those who pull in with big rigs wanting 50-amp hookups and modern facilities.

“We do get a lot of complaints from our campers,” said Dennis Wilson, park and recreation supervisor at Algonac State Park/Wetzel State Recreation Area. “Those complaints have increased over the last two or three years.”

But there is a glimmer of hope for supervisors like Wilson, whose park has over $3 million in needed facility upgrades. An infusion of $250 million from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funding could help the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Parks and Recreation Division tackle a $264 million maintenance to-do list in the next few years. States must spend stimulus dollars by the end of 2026.

“We have been making some progress,” said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division. “It’s a very big task. We don’t have the ability to catch up.”

“It will go a long way,” Wilson said of the possible $250 million in funding for delayed infrastructure projects. “It will be a huge boost for the state parks system.”

Meanwhile, the DNR announced a recent rate hike for camping and lodging fees to increase funding for state park operations, which is different from capital improvement projects. It’s the first such increase in four years, after a record-setting year that brought 35 million visitors to Michigan’s state parks.

Hoffmaster State Park | Marla R. Miller

Proposed bills appropriate money for parks

In June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to use $250 million from the state’s stimulus funding to upgrade state parks and trails and create a state park in Flint. The proposal awaits approval by the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature, which appears to be on board.

In late October, Republican lawmakers introduced three bills — two of which align with the governor’s proposal — that would allocate $968 million of Michigan’s $5.8 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief funds to state and local parks.

Senate Bill 703, sponsored by Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), addresses the $264 million in infrastructure and facilities improvements in Michigan’s state parks. The bill also designates $30 million each to the Mackinac Island State Park Fund and a new “Northern Michigan tourism and sports fund,” that would likely benefit McBroom’s U.P. district.

“Many of the facilities in our state’s parks have not had significant infrastructure improvements since the ‘60s and ‘70s,” McBroom, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “Bathrooms and access for people with disabilities are prime examples of the need and of how we are not always making the best impression on visitors.”

Senate Bill 704, sponsored by Sen. Michael MacDonald (R-Macomb Twp.), appropriates $150 million for grants to help local parks systems with facilities upgrades. 

The Michigan Recreation and Park Association serves public parks and recreation agencies throughout the state, offering advocacy, resources, and professional development opportunities. Executive Director Clay Summers calls the proposed bills “transformational” for both state and local parks. 

Many city, county and township parks also lack funding for needed facilities upgrades and future land acquisition.  

“It’s something, as we talk in our circles, we never thought we would see,” Summers said. “We have talked for years and years about how in the world in our local parks system and state parks system, how are we going to fix everything that needs to be fixed. This solves a lot of that.”

A third bill, introduced by Sen. John Bumstead (R-Newaygo), proposes using $508 million to boost the State Parks Endowment Fund. Senate Bill 702 would fully fund the endowment fund and help support Michigan state parks in perpetuity, according to a news release by Bumstead.

Michigan state parks | DNR map

The State Parks Endowment Fund receives revenue from bonuses, rentals, delayed rentals and royalties from oil, gas and mineral extraction on state-leased lands. The $508 million would generate new long-term revenue for the state parks system, both to buy new land and support operational costs and capital improvements at current parks. The bills were referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review.

While it remains unclear whether stimulus dollars can be used to backfill the endowment fund, it would provide a big boost to both state and local parks, Summers said.

By fully funding the State Parks Endowment Fund, it also would lift the cap on the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, meaning more money could start flowing back into that fund for grants to acquire new public land and develop recreation facilities. Right now, it would take another 20 or 30 years to fully fund the State Parks Endowment Fund.  

“If they can fill that [endowment fund] tomorrow, then the trust fund is going to see that revenue right away,” Summers said. 

The Natural Resources Trust Fund hit its $500 million cap in 2011. “Five hundred million [dollars] in 2011 isn’t the same in 2021 and certainly not in 2031,” Summers said. “We want to continue to allow these funds to grow to develop parks and buy park lands.”

State parks budget breakdown, fee increase

While COVID relief funds would address much-needed maintenance, the state parks system faces other financial woes, prompting a rate increase for camping and lodging fees to cover increased operational costs.

Approximately 97% of state parks funding comes from user fees and royalty revenues — not tax dollars — and park operations are separate from capital improvements. 

The Recreation Passport for residents and nonresidents replaced the former state parks sticker. The cost is $12 per vehicle ($6 for motorcycles) when purchased with a license plate registration renewal, or $17 when purchased at a state park. The passport is required for entry into state parks and recreation areas, state boat launches, state forest campgrounds and state trail parking lots.

Here’s the budget breakdown:

  • 26% Recreation Passport sales
  • 51% camping and lodging fees
  • 15% state-owned oil, gas and mineral royalty revenues
  • 5% concessions, shelter reservations and miscellaneous sources
  • 3% from Michigan’s general tax dollars

Declining returns from the Michigan State Parks Endowment Fund is another component. The endowment fund hasn’t generated as much revenue in recent years due to a reduction in oil, gas and mineral extraction on state-leased lands, according to Olson.

A 2020 statewide ballot proposal also changed the distribution of the endowment’s funds. Now at least 20% of the funds available for expenditures in any fiscal year must be used for capital improvements, which diverted money away from park operations.   

The Parks and Recreation Division also lost millions during COVID-19 stay-home orders after suspending entrance fees, delaying campground openings and issuing refunds for canceled stays and facility rentals. The division also manages state forest campgrounds, motorized and non-motorized trails, and state harbors and boating access sites.

Yet, at the same time, people opted outside and headed for a state park as the pandemic continued into 2021. Attendance at Michigan’s state parks has increased 30% since 2019, up from an estimated 28 million visitors to 35 million visitors. This year, the parks system set an all-time record of 1.4 million camp nights, Olson told the Advance.

Like everything, operational costs continue to rise. As with other sectors, the state parks system struggled to find seasonal park employees and had to raise wages, Olson said. More visitor traffic means more wear-and-tear on roads and facilities, as well as added day-to-day costs in the way of supplies, utilities and employees.

Sleepy Hollow State Park sign during COVID-19 stay-home order, April 21, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

“It puts a lot more stress and strain on our parks,” Olson said.

As a result, the DNR announced new rates for camping and lodging, based on the Consumer Price Index and a demand-based pricing model. Campers will notice a rate hike ranging from $2 to $8, depending on the campground and day. Busier parks and busier weekends will cost more. 

For cabins and other lodging, the rate increase is $10 per night for stays beginning Nov. 1, 2022. Rustic campsites, which don’t offer electricity and have limited amenities, may increase up to $5 per night.

Stimulus dollars would address delayed projects

Michigan’s busy, but aging, state parks system hasn’t been able to keep up with the growing list of maintenance projects and new infrastructure needs. In 2005, the Parks and Recreation Division had $300 million in identified needs, chipping it down to $264 million in recent years.

“It’s come down some but things built in 2000 now are starting to show their wear,” Olson said, adding that allocating $10 to $15 million per year for capital outlay projects doesn’t keep pace with the demand. “It’s a recurring need for revenue to not only do preventative maintenance but also replace facilities.”

The potential $250 million in stimulus funding includes $26 million for a proposed state park in Flint, Olson said. The remaining money would help address preventative facility maintenance, repairs to aging infrastructure, and damage caused by storm events and high-water levels.

Some planned infrastructure projects have been pushed down the list due to more pressing issues, like moving the historic CCC shelter building at Orchard Beach State Park due to erosion last winter.

The DNR spent $5 million to save the 850-ton limestone pavilion, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from falling off the bluff and into Lake Michigan. The park reopened in June 2021 as work continued to stabilize the bluff and reestablished the park’s beach. 

Many state park campgrounds need upgraded electrical service at campsites, along with new water and wastewater systems connected to municipal sewer systems, Olson said. Roads, bridges, modern bathhouses and ADA accessibility are priorities across the state parks system.

Hoffmaster State Park dune overlook stairs | Marla R. Miller

“Today, the demand is 50-amp service,” Olson said. “Many of our parks have older systems that are 30-amp systems. It’s overloading our electrical systems.”

Hoffmaster’s total project “wish list” tops $6 million and includes a new roof, flooring and exhibits at the Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center. The park’s Dune Climb stairway was replaced a few years ago, and the second phase involves repairs to the upper walkway. Whalen also wants to replace two original restroom buildings near the day-use beach area with one new ADA accessible building.  

The park’s campground also has a list of identified projects. Needed improvements include repaving roads, addressing flooding issues, replacing water and sewer lines and updating the sanitation station. 

An increasing amount of time and money is being spent trying to patch the roads, Whalen said, which diverts staff away from other park projects. Whalen has been at Hoffmaster for 10 years and said the previous manager “entered that work item proposal 17 years ago.”

“Putting $3 million plus into roads, that is much more than our annual budget; it wouldn’t happen out of the park budget,” Whalen said. “It’s really going to show a difference in the park rather than putting a patch on top of a patch.”

If the $250 million in stimulus funding comes through, it would be a boon for all of Michigan’s state parks. 

“Hopefully, everybody gets a fair share of the funding to see improvements through all the parks throughout the state,” Whalen said. “Each year that passes, you’re adding to those projects and just playing catch-up the entire time. This would provide facilities that are modern and up to code and service the higher number of customers we have coming into the park.”

At Algonac State Park, a 1,550-acre park with a half-mile of riverfront on the St. Clair River, the roads and campground sanitation station are in very poor condition, Wilson said. 

Algonac’s infrastructure projects include road work throughout the park and new full hookup sites in the Riverfront North loop. Wilson also wants to expand the dump station and improve traffic flow by increasing the lanes from two to four. 

Algonac State Park | Dennis Wilson

“It has been on the list for several years,” Wilson said of his park’s projects. “There have been other high priorities. The Michigan state parks is a very large system, and there are constant critical infrastructure needs in a lot of locations.”

The Riverfront North bathroom was constructed in 1968, and today’s campers want full hookup sites, which include water and sewer.

“We feel that would be very, very popular,” Wilson said. “A lot of people are looking for those full hookup sites.”

Many of Michigan’s parks have aging infrastructure, and the Parks and Recreation Division has to prioritize projects based on emergencies, safety issues, cost and the volume of visitors.  

Wilson said Algonac has experienced a big uptick in campers and visitors. The extra stimulus money would also give local businesses and communities a boost.

“It would be a huge improvement, not just for the park, but also for the community,” Wilson said. “Parks go a long way in providing an economic boost to the local economy and that’s the same way for us.”


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Marla R. Miller
Marla R. Miller

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and content marketing writer who previously worked for newspapers in Indiana and the Muskegon Chronicle. She lives in Norton Shores and her work can be found at marlarmiller.com.