By Sierra Rains-Moad
Matthew Mears has watched his small town grow and flourish around the reddish brown sandstone of Red Rock Canyon for years.
The children of Hinton, Oklahoma learn to swim at the canyon’s pool, families take the day off to enjoy the natural beauty in their backyards and the town’s economy runs heavily off the revenue visitors bring in, said Mears, who serves as the town administrator.
“Everyday you go down there during the summer it is packed full of campers– it’s pretty much at it’s limit everyday throughout the summer,” Mears said. “It draws a huge crowd to the town.”
But the quality of life and sales tax revenue the park brings to the small town, just an hour away from Oklahoma City, is under threat as the park has continuously made the “short list” of state parks slated to be shut down, Mears said.
Red Rock Canyon is not alone. An increasing number of Oklahoma state parks are making this list as the state budget decreases, leaving several parks with either the option of ceasing operations or becoming privately owned.
Increase in demand, decrease in supply
With a remaining 62,000 acres of natural resources to explore, the number of state park visitors has continued to increase by 7.5 percent since 2014, reaching a total of around 9.7 million visitors in 2017, said Leslie Blair, public information officer for the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.
“Tourism is a big driver for the economy of Oklahoma,” Blair said. “We’re the state’s third largest industry, which brings over $8 billion to the state each year. State parks aren’t all of that, but they are part of that.”
In 2017, state parks brought in around $22.5 million, and an additional $23.3 million from sales by nearby businesses, Blair said.
However, Blair said the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department has taken “significant hits” to its budget for several years, leaving the department to operate with nearly 45 percent less state legislatively appropriated funding.
Of the department’s $80.9 million budget, state parks receive around 76 percent, Blair said.
In March 2017, the Oklahoma legislature asked state agencies to consider the impact a worst-case-scenario budget reduction of 15 percent might have on their services; and the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department feared this would cost the state around half of its 32 state parks.
Blair said the department faced a similar 10 percent cut in 2011 and, as a result, shed seven state parks.
However, because cuts to the department were not as drastic as imagined and due to a $1.4 million donation on behalf of the U.S. Department of Interior, the department was able to stabilize its budget for the first time this year.
But for some state parks like Red Rock Canyon, the damage had already been done.
The privatization experiment
Local businessman Rick Thiel spent most of his life growing up in Hinton, repelling down the red rock walls and cooling down in the pool. When Thiel heard that the park might be facing closure, he went to the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation with a business proposition.
Thiel wanted to run the park himself, but the only way he could do so is if the state leased it to the city, a county or a tribal affiliate, he said.
At this point, it seemed like the most logical decision as town administrator was to step in, Mears said. And because Thiel was a local resident, he had greater appeal than other private contractors might.
“As far as the town’s concerned, we don’t want to see it (the park) close so that’s one of the reasons we got involved, to make sure someone from town could be running it,” Mears said.
Upon reaching agreement with Mears and executive director of the state tourism department, Dick Dutton, in November 2018, the state leased Red Rock Canyon State Park to the town of Hinton, which then leased the park to Thiel’s company.
As a result, the park has shed its former title and become known as Red Rock Canyon Adventure Park.
When Red Rock Canyon was a state park it cost around $300 to operate it, but the park itself was only bringing in $160, Mears said.
“For the private company to make it work, they’re going to have to change something,” Mears said. “He’s going to run it more like a company instead of like a state park so it will actually break even or make money.”
Thiel said he wants to make several additions and improvements to the park, including the addition of a zip line, obstacle courses, concession stands, cafes and a dam which will increase the size of the pond.
It’s not unusual for struggling state parks to turn to private ownership as a means of preservation, Blair said. Five of the seven parks shuttered in 2011 are now operated by private contractors.
“It is to our understanding that local areas are still operating those very similar to how we had been operating them,” Blair said.
Conflicts in enterprise
However, the arrangement with Red Rock Canyon did not come without opposition.
David Sutton served as park manager for Red Rock Canyon from 1986 until retiring earlier this year and is concerned about how operation as a for-profit enterprise might affect the park, according to The Oklahoman.
One of Sutton’s fears that the change will lead to reduced hours and access has already become a reality, Mears said. The park will now be closed at dusk, so that only paying campers may come in and out.
Whether it’s small or substantial changes, other Oklahoma state parks have faced great disappointment in promises of privatization.
In 2008, the state sold 750 acres of Lake Texoma State Park to a private development firm, which agreed to add condos, hotels, golf courses, restaurants, swimming pools, a gym, and other amenities to the park, but 10 years later the land remains nothing but an unkempt space of weeds and trees.
If Thiel’s company fails, Red Rock Canyon Adventure park will return to the ownership of either the city or the state, Mears said.
However, failure would mean a great amount of uncertainty for the park, a loss of revenue for the town of Hinton and an even greater hole in the hearts of residents.
“To lose that, to lose that quality of life– it would be a huge loss if it shut down,” Mears said.