Wednesday, March 16, 2011

OTRD not broke

Well, the movement to save the Runestone State Park has developed more into a mud slinging battle between the Democrats and Republicans and comments on how Heavener needs a good spring cleaning.

Thanks to alert reader Cody Smith, it appears like the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department isn’t exactly hurting for money.

According to a recent story by The Daily Oklahoman, the OTRD only has, uh, $39,256,883 set aside in a revolving fund.

In case you missed it, that was $39 million, not thousands. So the OTRD really needs to save that $4,000 it will realize by closing the Runestone.

The OTRD is not mentioned in the story, but if you look to the graph which I just happened to copy and post here, all state agencies are broken down.

And there is a link below the story to check out the individual agencies. Since I am a curious person, I hit the link and was more than surprised to find that the balances for a couple of different funds for the OTRD has increased over the last two years, instead of shrinking, which is what you would expect from a state agency needing to close seven state parks.

In the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Fund, there was $2.4 million in the account in December of 2008. In December of 2010, that fund has grown to $5.7 million.

The State Park Improvement fund grew from $423 thousand to $544 thousand. There is $13,911 million in the Oklahoma Tourism Capital Improvement Fund.

In case you missed it, the state closed seven state parks, but got Carl Albert State College to take over operations of the park. But a private organization has been formed to raise what is expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year to run the park.

No state funds or money from the bloated OTRD will be used to operate the park. It will come from the good people and businesses from LeFlore County.

Also, as has been mentioned, the state rushed to close the parks before the state governing bodies had a chance to discuss the issue and see if something could be done.

This isn’t about who is democrat or republican, or the condition of a small, rural community in southeastern Oklahoma. Money is available and should be used to save the Runestone along with the other six state parks.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Runestone continued

Concerning the whole Runestone closing/CASC running the park episode, my blog Friday about the changes and the meeting drew a lot of comments regarding the situation.

Somehow, the situation developed into a fight between the Democrats and Republicans, which was not my goal of the blog. It was to discuss my feelings about the meeting and several questions I had about CASC running the park.

*First off, I did not in any way, shape or form want anybody to think I was critical of Carl Albert State College. I appreciate CASC taking on the additional responsibilities and helping to keep the park open.

But, like I mentioned in the blog, CASC is a college and its goal is to educate students, not run museums or former state parks. I know nothing about how the Kerr Conference Center and Museum are being operated, just repeated a comment at the meeting.

*I am also thankful that Sen. Mark Allen worked hard to try and keep the park open. I just feel, like many others, there should have been meetings held to come up with a better situation instead of rushing into doing something.

*I hope there isn’t a lawsuit concerning the park. That would meddle the situation, but it would not surprise me if this did happen.

*The crowd was unruly at times. I can understand the frustration and appreciate Heavener city manager Mike Kennerson’s handling the meeting. As for the lady who complained about her water...

*Partisan politics! The democrat and republican supporters started slinging comments back and forth in the comments. This should not have happened. We should be spending our efforts in doing what is best for the park. The criticism of Gov. Fallin and Deby Snodgrass seemed to offend supporters of the republicans. They need criticism of the way this was handled. And as I mentioned, I voted for Gov. Fallin because at the time, I thought she was the best candidate. Would I vote for her again? Hmm…

*One writer talked about the criticism of Snodgrass. Yes, she stepped into a bad situation. I do feel her salary needed to be mentioned, along with the fact that she was appointed to the job not because of her work experience (she was Gov. Fallin’s inaugural chairwoman and previously worked for Chesapeake as a lobbyist). But this is probably a problem we have with most state departments. As for the remark about school educators and teachers, the superintendents are hired by the school boards. They must have a certificate and be educators. Snodgrass does not.

*One person commented that the previous tourism director was appointed by the former governor. What I was told was the former director was appointed by the tourism committee, not the governor. Not that it probably matters, just wanted to get that straight.

*Rep. James Lockhart was not notified of the meeting and had to find out from a friend. One writer said he should not have left his office early. The house was not in session Friday. He came to Heavener to meet with people. His cell phone number is widely known and he should have been involved.

*There was also a comment about how the state had planned to close the park two years ago. I asked former Sen. Kenneth Corn about this. He said if it was true, it was an internal memo and was never discussed with him.

*Yes, we do have to tighten our belts and look at all areas of the state government. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department had to make a five percent cut. How was this done? Not by cutting each park by five percent, which seemed like the logical thing, but by closing seven state parks. Each of the parks is vital to the local, rural communities. I wonder what would have happened if the OTRD tried to close one of the parks in Tulsa or Oklahoma City?

*The park will now be funded by private donations. A non-profit group has been formed, under CASC, to raise funds to keep the park open. It will cost around $80,000 a year. No state money will be used. Instead, our tax money will be spent on parks elsewhere. But the metro areas were spared, don’t want to upset them.

Hopefully the state’s governing body will revisit this issue. The way it is set up is not the answer, in my opinion. Corn said there are funds available for the OTRD to keep all the parks open and that would be the best option for everybody.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tigers take gold ball

We can all learn something from the Talihina boys basketball team.

The Tigers had made three straight trips to the state tournament going into this year, and finished second the last two years, losing to Pawnee both times by one point in overtime.

When the OSSAA announced the classes for the state, perennial power Oklahoma City Millwood was dropping into 2A and was given the top ranking.

Also, Pawnee was back and would probably be in Talihina’s way.

But despite the disappointment of coming up short the last two years, the Tigers were focused on winning this time, not satisfied with another second-place finish. Somebody once said it wasn't about winning or losing, but how you played the game.

For this group of players, after all the blood, sweat and tears, it was about winning. And then meant winning state.

Talihina took care of business, losing only two games during the regular season, one to eventual Class 5A state champion Tulsa Washington and the other to Tulsa Edison.

The Tigers won the LeFlore County Tournament and dominated in the postseason, winning all four games to qualify for another trip to Oklahoma City.

In the state tournament, Talihina defeated Chouteau and then Stratford. All that was left was another appearance in the finals, another shot at winning the elusive state championship.

And that is exactly what happened Saturday morning when the Tigers won state with a 42-27 win over Preston, a team which Talihina defeated in the area tournament last week.

Preston sent Pawnee and Millwood packing in reaching the finals. But despite a double-digit win over Preston last week, this was not easy for Talihina.

The Tigers trailed 25-22 in the third quarter. Senior Chris Capsey hit his lone basket of the day, a three pointer to tie the score. Taggart Lockhart followed with a pair of free throws and Talihina had the lead for good.

Things were still tight at 29-27 before Talihina went on a 13-0 run to finish the game and capture the first boys state basketball championship.

The Tigers’ great group of seniors capped off their fabulous career with the win they wanted the most. Lockhart and Jordan EagleRoad were four-year starters. Jace Chancellor and Capsey started the final two seasons.

Michael Bugos played most of the finals while Taylor Hubbard and Garrett Williams also contributed.

It is doubtful we will ever see a group of seniors like this again in LeFlore County and a fitting going away present for coach Chris Gillespie, who has announced he is hanging up his coaching whistle.

This was also Gillespie’s first state championship after 30 years of coaching. He will also be missed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Announcement raises questions

You have to hand it to Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation director Deby Snodgrass.

And several people did at a meeting Friday at the Community Center at the Runestone State Park, but not necessarily in a kind and gentle way.

Snodgrass and other members of her staff braved the meeting regarding the closing of the Runestone State Park.

She announced on March 4 that the Runestone State Park along with six other state parks would be closed.

Snodgrass, who was appointed to the position because she was buddies with Gov. Mary Fallin, walked into a hornet’s nest.

Perhaps she hoped the announcement that Carl Albert State College would take over management of the Runestone and keep it open would sooth the overflow crowd.

It did. For approximately three minutes. That is, until Rep. James Lockhart, who is a Heavener resident and has fought hard to save the park, told the crowd he was not invited to the meeting which was held at CASC Friday afternoon and only found out about it from a friend.

Soon, there were more questions than answers. So, a private group, called the Friends of the Runestone would be formed, mainly so no state funds would be used on the park. Instead, the park will be funded by private donations to the newly formed 501c3 group.

Nope, don’t want any of our tax dollars spent on something that brings an estimated 100,000 visitors to our area! Oh yeah, it is expected to cost around $80,000 to run the park.

I was informed before the meeting about CASC taking over management, and also told that the state pressured the school into accepting the decision. During the meeting, it was announced that Dr. Webb consulted the agreement with regents and it was approved.

One regent I talked with after the meeting said he had no communication with the college and only found out about the agreement shortly before the community meeting.

Maybe I am wrong, but it is my opinion that CASC was a junior college that is supposed to educate our students, not run state parks. I am glad and grateful CASC has stepped up to the plate and will keep the park open, but as was pointed out, CASC already as the Kerr Conference Center and Museum and the museum is supposedly seldom open and there are problems at the Conference Center.

There is also a couple of sticky situations that need to be resolved. First off, there is the deed from Herbert Ward which says that if the park is not kept as a state park, the land reverts back to him. Hmm. Also, neither the CASC regents or the tourism committee have ratified the agreement.

Former state senator Kenneth Corn also said there is money available and the decision to close the park should have not been rushed.

As could be expected, Snodgrass did draw some heated questions. Early on, she said a person in the OTPD decided which parks had to be closed.

One Heavener resident asked what her salary was. Snodgrass looked at her staff then replied it was $86,000. After confirming she was told by the staff person which parks needed to be closed, she was asked why the state could not save $86,000 by eliminating her position and using the person who decided.

She was also raked over the coals on the cost estimates. Snodgrass said it costs $108,000 to run the park, with $84,000 of that coming in personnel costs.

The personnel will be transferred to “vacant” positions with other state parks. So the potential savings is the expected upkeep costs of $24,000 and the revenue of $20,000, so there will be a savings of roughly $4,000 by closing the park, not counting lost tax revenue.

When questioned about the state budget, she said part of the budget went to the state movie operations. Asked if they had made any movies, she talked about one that was made about a former state official (duh!) and then asked how the movie did. Uh, not too good, Snodgrass did not say, but did not have to, either.

But there is still hope, as Corn said. The legislatures are still in session and hopefully something can be done. Even though Snodgrass apparently thinks she has flushed away the problem.

Plus, I smell a lawsuit coming down the highway, one that will probably raise even more questions than answers.

Save the Runestone

There is no way of telling how many people have visited the Runestone State Park over the years.

Visitors from all over the country and the world have taken the time to travel the narrow road up Poteau Mountain to visit the park and see the carvings on the rock.

They also walk the trails, let the kids frolic on the playground equipment, use the campground facilities and enjoy a great view from the overlook.

The park holds many events each year such as the Bluegrass on the Mountain, an event organized by Curtis Howze which raises money for the Alzeheimer’s Association, easter egg hunts put on by the local veterans, along with family and school reunions, weddings, receptions or just a place to get away for a few minutes.

Locals use the road leading up to the park for exercise. Others hike the trails and enjoy the views and scenery, which you don’t get at any of the parks in and around Oklahoma City.

According to officials, over 100,000 people visit the park each year.

Sadly, unless something changes, there will be no more birthday parties, family reunions, weddings, charity events or easter egg hunts as the gate for the park will be closed on Aug. 15.

I have witnessed and seen many dumb things in my life, but closing the Runestone State Park is at the top.

Consider the following:

*The decision was announced last Friday, shortly before 5 p.m.;

*The director, Deby Snodgrass, decided to close the seven state parks;

*She should know, since Snodgrass had been on the job for less than a month and was appointed, not because of her vast experience with the Oklahoma parks, but because she was Gov. Mary Fallin’s inaugural chairwoman;

*Snodgrass touted the savings the state would receive from closing the park. $700,000! But all employees can transfer to other parks, so there will be no savings from personnel, which makes up most of the budget. Not counting personnel, operating expenses for the Runestone were expected to be $24,000 this year and revenue $20,000. That means the so-called savings are $4,000 to close a park which draws over 100,000 people to Heavener, LeFlore County and OKLAHOMA!;

*Sure, some of the visitors are local or from the area, but would we rather they went to Arkansas or Texas and spent their money? That money, incidentally, generates tax revenue and pays for stuff like salaries, such as that of the executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Parks Department;

*This is pure speculation, but maybe Snodgrass and her cronies thought the department would receive money from selling the state parks or leasing them out. Uh nope. The state or OTPD will not receive a penny from selling or leasing the Runestone. When the land was deeded over, one of the stipulations was if the state ever stopped using the land as a state park, it would go back to the heirs of Herbert Ward;

*In her press release, Snodgrass said the OTPD was in communication with local communities regarding the continued operation of the parks which will be closed. Ask Heavener officials how many times they have heard from Snodgrass. The answer? None;

*Like many others, I have sent emails to the OTPD and governor’s office. So far, nobody has responded.

Fortunately, our elected officials have been working to save the park. Both Rep. James Lockhart and Sen. Mark Allen have had meetings with Snodgrass and other key state officials. There are a lot of important people working behind the scenes.

So, what will happen at tonight’s meeting? Snodgrass is expected to attend, which will likely be her first visit to the Runestone. Hopefully, she will announce the right decision has been made to keep the Runestone open.

Will she announce the park will stay happen? Who knows. But it should.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Save the Runestone!

The following is the greeting on the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation web site:
Tourism is big business for Oklahoma. And it's our job to make it an even bigger, more vital part of our economy. There are three areas of concentration that we're focused on to energize our state's tourism industry:

Enhancing Oklahoma's Image

It's important that we show the country and the world what Oklahomans have always known -- that Oklahoma is a GREAT state, great to live in and great to visit. We must continue building an image that accurately reflects who we are.

Partnering with Oklahoma Tourism Leaders

We must rely on each other to advance tourism in Oklahoma. By joining together, rather than competing, for tourism dollars, both the city and its surrounding towns win. So our role is to continue building partnerships and assisting tourism leaders.

Revitalizing the Oklahoma State Parks System

The state parks system is an integral part of tourism and one of the most significant recreational components for our citizens. State parks will command a significant amount of our attention as we continue to protect and preserve their fragile ecosystems. We look forward to working with you to reach these goals as, together, we strengthen and build Oklahoma tourism.

Hmm. Making tourism bigger and more vital part of our economy? Then why does the department plan to close seven state parks, including the Runestone State Park?

When I first heard the news, it felt like somebody had just kicked me in the privates. It had to be a joke. But it wasn’t.

Oklahoma’s state Tourism and Recreation Department plans to close the Runestone State Park in five months?

The Runestone is a one-of-a-kind attraction. It has been such a big part of my life and that of many others. There is no way to know how many hours I have spent walking the trails, taking pictures and enjoying the natural beauty.

The state park hosts so many events, it is hard to list. But here are a few: the annual Bluegrass Festival, easter egg hunt, reunions, car shows, birthday parties and so much more.

It is a big part of Heavener, too, bringing tourists from near and far. But hey, it is a small town in southeastern Oklahoma and the bureaucrats in Oklahoma City who made this decision probably never even have been to the park, which is clean, friendly and free to visitors.

Plus, you have to be proud of the way the decision was announced. It was sent out by a press release shortly before 5 p.m. on a Friday by director Deby Snodgrass. Well, that is certainly convenient, eh? And it keeps the protests from disturbing a weekend for the head honchos.

By eliminated the seven parks, the state is expected to save $700,000 annually. Well, I’m sure that will save a lot of money. So, each park costs the state approximately $100,000 each?

I wonder how much money the visitors to the seven parks bring in to the state and local communities by visiting the parks? And I might be wrong and intend to find out, but I would hazard a guess that there are state parks that go in the hole by a lot more than $100,000 each year.

Want to bet they are close to Tulsa and Oklahoma City? I would. I also wonder how much we could eliminate by getting rid of the state parks and recreation director?

Sorry, but I could not find that information. However, I did notice that she was appointed to the position by new Gov. Mary Fallin, so all of you who know the governor or contributed to her campaign should give her a call or write and let the governor know this was not a wise decision.

So, what can we do? For starters, call Snograss at (405) 230-8301. You could email her, but she does not have an email address listed. But there is one for her administrative assistant, Cindy Reisman at Lets wear that one out, shall we?

You can also write to: Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, 120 N. Robinson, 6th Floor, Oklahoma City, Ok. 73102.

We have started a Save the Runestone cause on Facebook. The link is HERE.