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David Rainer: State Parks open for business during renovations

The Alabama State Parks Division is in the middle of numerous exciting facilities renovations, but State Parks Director Greg Lein wants everyone to know our 21 State Parks are open for business and look forward to your visit.

Alabama voters overwhelmingly passed a bond issue in 2022 that provides $80 million for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) State Parks Division for improvement, renovation, acquisition, construction and maintenance of the parks across the state.

Some of those projects are so big that some parks’ facilities had to be closed during construction, impacting the State Parks budget, which is not included in the bond issue.

“One of the things to remember is that our parks’ operations are a self-funded system,” Lein said. “Our annual operations are paid for by customers coming to our parks. So, when you have an entire campground, like at Oak Mountain, shut down, there is no revenue being generated off that campground. So, it makes it even harder to make ends meet at the park and continue to serve our customers.

“My message is, in addition to being patient with us during this time of making all these improvements, please get out and use our parks. That’s what is helping fund our day-to-day operations. It helps us through these periods of renovation when some of the amenities are not producing the revenue for everything we want to do in the parks.”

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said the upgrades underway in the State Parks System will be well worth the inconvenience and wait.

“I am very excited about all the renovations happening at our Alabama State Parks,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have worked very hard to obtain funding from multiple sources to make these much-needed improvements. The added amenities and updated campgrounds, lodges and facilities at Alabama State Parks will produce a first-class product we can all be proud of.

“Our partnership with ADEM for the water and sewer improvements at multiple parks, though not exciting to most people, is a critical need that I am glad we are able to address. We had a lot of old, crumbling infrastructure, and these improvements will set us to be self-sufficient into the future. Please ‘pardon our progress’ as we make these improvements over the next two years. We are working to minimize any impacts on the enjoyment of our guests, but there will be a lot of construction underway all over the state. We plan to cut a lot of ribbons in late 2024 and 2025 as these improvements are completed!”

Oak Mountain, the state’s largest park at 11,632 acres near Birmingham, also has one of the largest projects related to the bond issue with a total renovation of the campground.

“The plans for Oak Mountain were actually being worked on prior to the bond initiative, so we were a little more ready to go than some of our other projects,” Lein said. “We were able to bid this project this past summer. That’s a unique campground with around 66 RV sites. All of those will have new 50-amp service, water and sewer. We will have new bathhouses, which is a big deal, as well a new meeting space that has really nice roll-up doors. It will be a great new feature for that campground.

“The campground also has about 60 primitive tent sites that have been really popular over the last two decades. We’re going to be making some improvements to those. Some will have water and power, and others will have no utilities.”

Lein said when he makes any kind of presentation in the Birmingham area, he always receives great feedback about Oak Mountain.

“After the presentations, people always come up to me and say, ‘Hey, my family and I tent-camped at Oak Mountain this past spring. The family just loved it. Those are such neat sites, being right by the lake and trails, it’s really a special opportunity,’” he said. “I think it’s important to remember to have a blend of accommodations when you’re planning campgrounds. Primitive sites are how some people start out tent-camping, and they may graduate to a pop-up camper and then a pull-behind camper and then to a motorhome.

“The thing that’s special about our State Parks System is that we have something for everybody, and we’re making improvements for everybody. Oak Mountain is about 60% finished. We’re really excited about this project. Oak Mountain is our biggest park and closest to the largest population in Alabama. You’ve got all those interstate systems and road system that come together in Birmingham. So, it doesn’t matter whether we’re trying to accommodate Alabamians or tourists, Oak Mountain is well-positioned to serve our customers. Our goal is to have the campground reopened by Memorial Day 2024.”

Another project site, Monte Sano, is in north Alabama in the middle of the greater Huntsville area. Last year some improvements were made, including upgrading all the 80 campsites to 50-amp electrical service.

“Now we’re going back with the bond money, and we’re going to improve the pads themselves,” Lein said. “We’re going to put new borders on the pads, level them, add gravel and upgrade the area with the firepit and picnic table. We will also make improvements to one of the bathhouses there. That will give the campground a totally renovated look, whereas upgrading the electrical you can’t really see that. You can experience it, but you can’t see it. We will be making good aesthetic improvements to a beautiful area in the middle of Huntsville that gets a lot of use. Our goal is to see all that done and reopened by spring break 2024.”

Another site with large projects, Meaher State Park, is on the south end of the state on the Mobile Bay Causeway (Battleship Parkway).

“Meaher is a really neat site in Baldwin County on the Causeway,” Lein said. “It’s positioned in between the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which is this vast, fabulous wetlands system, and Mobile Bay. It surprises me how popular Meaher is. For years, it’s one of those sites where you look at the occupancy numbers and wish you had more sites to offer. It’s right there on I-10, one of the major travel corridors. You’ve got people who travel the I-10 and I-65 corridors who want to come to the Alabama Gulf Coast or the Florida Panhandle, where the beaches are so pretty. Meaher is well-positioned to take advantage of that.”

Lein said the bid was recently sent out for Meaher for a new bathhouse and an additional 45 RV sites to go with the 61 current RV sites.

“We’re also adding several new cabins, those tiny home-type cabins that have been introduced in past five years and are so popular,” he said. “That’s a great project.”

Lein said another campground renovation that is about to start is at Wind Creek State Park just south of Alexander City on the banks of Lake Martin.

“Wind Creek is our largest campground,” he said. “It barely beats out Gulf State Park in terms of capacity by having more than 500 spaces. One of the things that has been hard for us is that Wind Creek is one of our older campgrounds, and most of the sites have 30-amp service. These more modern RVs that have one or two air-conditioning units really have to have 50-amp service. When you don’t have that, you’re missing a whole group of customers that you can’t serve. We’re improving 74 sites. Most of those sites will be in close proximity to the lake and waterfront.

“There’s a marina with rental boats. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to come and have a staycation.”

Lein said these projects are just the highlights and more improvements are in the works.

“We have a bunch of other projects where the design and engineering are underway,” he said. “Those will be bid later this winter or early next spring. We’re excited about everything that is happening in our State Parks System.”

Visit www.alapark.com and explore all the available park activities, including hiking more than 450 miles of trails, mountain biking, horseback riding, golfing and zip-lining as well as archery parks and off-road trails.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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