No matter how you look at it, Florida’s award-winning state parks are big business. Last year, they attracted 28 million visitors and had a $2.4 billion direct economic impact on the state. The parks supported 33,587 jobs statewide and generated $158 million in annual Florida sales tax revenue.
These would be very impressive figures if this was a private sector company – it is even more remarkable when you consider that this is a state-run organization within the Department of Environmental Protection.
The Florida Park Service has two things going for it that makes it special. The first thing is financial. It is operated very professionally and successfully as if it were a big business, which is exactly what it is. The FPS is around 80 percent self-sufficient, a figure that most other state park systems nationwide would be envious of.
The second thing is all the people who are associated with the parks and make them so great. Eric Draper, Florida State Park Director, loves to say ‘people make the parks’ – and he is right.
These people include more than 1,000 dedicated and passionate staff who work in the parks alongside the 15,000 committed volunteers who last year contributed an amazing 1.3 million volunteer hours. This group also includes the concessionaires who operate everything from canoe rentals and stores to horse riding and restaurants that enhance the visitor experience, and the thousands of other people who are employed outside the park but whose jobs rely on the visitors and services the park guests enjoy.
And, of course, these people include the over 28 million visitors who visit and recreate in the parks every year. Many of these people are frequent visitors, sometimes even daily visitors, who enjoy the parks for their walks, runs, swims or birdwatching. Many of these visitors come from around the globe, perhaps stumbling upon the state parks by chance, and cannot then get enough of them.
It is so heartwarming to talk to a family from Britain who discovered a state park on a previous visit to Florida and made sure they had more time to explore it when they came back on vacation.
So, despite all the challenges that Florida State Parks face – such as hurricanes, aging infrastructure, and competition from other attractions – there will always be a need for them because the people want them! As the state’s population increases, the demand for access to undisturbed public spaces will increase and the pressure on the parks will grow.
It is up to all of us – all the people that make the parks – to ensure that our state parks are protected and preserved not just for our own pleasure, but for all the generations to come.