JAMESTOWN, R.I. – At Beavertail State Park, the road that loops around the lighthouse is closed to cars because of dangerous washouts caused by erosion and storm surge.
At Goddard State Memorial Park in Warwick, the siding on the clubhouse is crumbling, and the wooden beach bulkhead is buckling.
And at Brenton Point State Park in Newport, the visitors center needs a new roof, windows, and public restrooms.
The parks are a major asset to Rhode Island, attracting tourists and bringing important revenue to the state, something that’s become essential as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. According to a 2018 report, some 9 million people visit Rhode Island’s 8,200 acres of parkland each year – the most visitors per acre of any state park system in the country. The visits support more than 3,700 jobs and bring an estimated $312 million to the state economy, the report said.
But Rhode Island’s state parks are in need of major renovations, state Department of Environmental Management Director Janet L. Coit said Tuesday, pointing to the $47.1 million in desperately needed “deferred maintenance” detailed in the report.
“Our state parks are loved to death,” Coit said.
“So many of these vitally important places are deteriorating,” she said. “They need to be restored and rebuilt for for the people to enjoy them now and in the future."
While unveiling her budget proposal in January, Governor Gina M. Raimondo suggested a $64 million “green” bond proposal, which included $35 million for state parks, beaches, and campgrounds. In June, she called for expanding several bonding proposals, boosting the 2020 Beach, Clean Water and Green Economy bond item to $69 million, including $40 million for parks, beaches, and campgrounds.
But that bond item won’t be on the Nov. 3 ballot because the General Assembly has postponed action on the state budget and bond items as it waits to see if Congress provides further pandemic relief funding.
The House and Senate are planning to reconvene after Election Day and to vote on the state budget in November or early December, House spokesman Larry Berman said. House leaders expect the “green” bond to be part of that state budget package, and they will consider other bond proposals, as well, he said. If approved by the legislature, a special election on bond items would take place in January or February 2021, likely via through mail ballots.
In all, Raimondo has called for putting $497 million in borrowing proposals before the voters, including $311 million for housing and infrastructure, $117 million for higher education, and the $69 million for parks, recreation, and drinking water projects.
The pandemic has only highlighted the need for accessible and well-managed outdoor spaces. “We have seen unprecedented levels of use of the state parks since the pandemic started,” Coit told The Globe in October. “These places are being rediscovered, and in some cases discovered for the first time. People want to get outdoors.”
“Our state parks are a treasure,” state Senator Samuel W. Bell, a Providence Democrat, tweeted at the time. "Yet they languish from lack of staff, lack of maintenance, and lack of expansion. We must reverse these disturbing trends. Conditions are dire, as the administration’s own report admits.”
According to the report, “Over the past 15 years, budget and staffing cuts, combined with heavy and increasing visitor use, aging facilities, and expanded responsibilities, threaten DEM’s ability to provide residents and tourists with well-maintained and accessible recreation facilities and opportunities.”
Coit said visitors use state parks for free, and Rhode Island has traditionally used bonding to pay for major investments in its parks. The proposed $69-million bond would be the largest environmental bond in the state since the $70 million bond approved in 2004. With increased demand because of COVID-19, the need to support the tourism industry and preserve the parks for future use are important economic priorities.
“You can’t live in a house and never maintain it,” she said. “I think people in Rhode Island deserve to have safe, modern, welcoming facilities, and that doesn’t happen without investment."
Low interest rates make now a good time to borrow money, Coit said, and state park improvement projects would create local jobs.
But some experts are on the fence about whether the time is right for this particular investment.
Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, said the business-backed group does not take positions on specific bond proposals. But in general terms, he said, “There is some question as to whether ‘green’ bonds are as optimal as other proposals in terms of stimulating the economy.” Bond proposals aimed at economic development and housing, for example, could have a more direct impact, he said.
RIPEC usually takes a “fiscally conservative” stance on borrowing. But compared to other states, Rhode Island is low in capital investment at the state or municipal levels, and low interest rates make borrowing more feasible now, DiBiase said.
“It’s one of the few tools we have to spur the economy and to help us rebound,” he said. “This is the time to do it. We have headroom because we have brought our borrowing in line.”
Bob Bendick, who served as director of the Department of Environmental Management from 1982 to 1990, said he has always viewed funding for state parks as an investment, rather than an expense.
“You are investing in the future of the state. You are investing in tourism, with clear returns to the state’s economy,” he said. “You are investing in better lives for Rhode Island families who don’t have a house on the beach: They don’t all have water views, but they can share in the heritage and character of the state by going to a state park.”
He said the amount of money spent on staffing and maintaining state parks is “substantially less” than it was 30 years ago when he was DEM director. And thanks to the pandemic, parks are much more busy than they used to be.
He said he has been going to Beavertail State Park for at least 40 years, and he has never seen it busier than it was this summer.
“It is an incredibly beautiful place – with the lighthouse and the rocks,” said Bendick, who now works as Gulf Coast director for the Nature Conservancy. “It was crowded with all sorts of people, from in and out of the state, kids and senior citizens, people watching the sunset and the sailboats going by.”
But he said he saw that the state needs to repair damage done by erosion, fix trails and roadways, and ensure that the park can be used safely.
“Despite the heroic efforts by people who work for the state park system, there are not enough resources to keep the parks up – particularly in light of their intensive use amid the pandemic,” Bendick said. “The Rhode Island park system is exceptionally beautiful and well used, but particularly with that amount of use, you cannot work miracles.”