Missouri's state parks system expands, attracts more visitors

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JEFFERSON CITY – Visitation to Missouri state parks have reached record numbers.

In the last five years, Missouri State Parks attendance increased by nearly 20 percent. Half of the increase occurred between 2015-2016.

Last year, 21.2 million people visited the state’s parks and historic sites. That exceeds the park system's goal of reaching 20 million visitors by 2020. 

In 2016, visitors to Lake of the Ozarks, Sam A. Baker, Table Rock and Castlewood state parks drew the most people.

However, the numbers aren’t just an achievement for the parks system, but have an impact on surrounding communities and the entire state.

In 2011, when around 17.8 million people visited, Missouri’s economy saw a $26 return on investment, according to an economic report listed on the Missouri State Park’s website. 

As state park numbers increase, nearby towns tend to also see a rise in visitors and business.

Melanie Smith, the Katy Trail Coordinator, spoke specifically about the impact of the development of the Katy Trail State Park over the last twenty years.

“We have seen businesses pop up that have been supporting those trail users because that’s a constant flow of people that are coming through their town, so they’re developing businesses that are providing services that are needed by the Katy Trail visitors,” she said.

The Katy Trail drew more than 400,000 visitors last year and nearby businesses can tell. 

“Oh gee, I think we’ve had people from almost every continent," said Dixie Yates, owner of Yates House Bed & Breakfast. "Japan, Australia, China, lots of people from the United States, of course." 

Yates and her husband chose to open their bed and breakfast in Rocheport blocks from the trail in the late 1990’s. Yates said, since then, they've watched the town grow. 

The most recent report show the trail generated more than $18 million for the state and provided an $18 return on investment in 2011.

This growth in visitors attracted Jane Smith and her husband to set up the shop R & J's Jukeboxes in town just two years ago. 

“We looked at being over in Columbia, but since there’s such a diverse crowd that comes into Rocheport and it’s a smaller quieter town, we just figured we’d probably come over here instead and actually we have had a lot of people,” Jane Smith said.

Melanie Smith said growth in towns along the trail is noticeable beyond Rocheport. 

“We see it in all these small towns that are along the trail, that they have really prospered," she said. "They have worked to develop businesses and relationships with those trail users.”

A similar trend is seen in all towns surrounding state parks.

"These natural and cultural tributes to Missouri’s extraordinary places and people constitute a billion dollar industry, supporting thousands of private sector employees and generating millions of dollars in federal, state and local revenue,” the park system stated in its 2013- 2017 Strategic Plan.

Visitors spent $778 million in 2011, according to the 2012 Economic Report. That multi-million dollar impact came when three million less people visited the parks then than now.


Melanie Smith attributes an increase in marketing efforts and a rising national interest in the outdoors.

“I think more people are looking to stay local and I think we’re seeing, as much as everybody is excited about technology all the time, I think we are also seeing folks who are maybe appreciating a little bit more that quieter vacation, relax vacation, so they’re turning back to camping.” she said.

Sixty-one percent of American families reported occasionally camping last year, according to the 2017 North America Camping Report. In 2014, that number was 58 percent.

Another reason for the spike in visitors could be the increase in the number of parks and historic sites in the state, an increase that comes with controversy.

The department counts attendance figures for 30 more state parks and sites than it did in 2000.

Three new parks were announced in December 2016. These additions bring the total to 91 sites and parks throughout the state. 

Earlier this year, Rep. Randy Pietzman, R-Troy, proposed House Bill 698, which would prohibit the Department of Natural Resources from acquiring new land to establish a state park until all existing parks and facilities are brought up to date.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, said, “It’s my understanding that there is much needed repair. We need to analyze what needs to be done before buying more state parks.”

He cited Cuivre River, which attracted 500,000 visitors in 2016, as having some issues.

Hansen said he doesn’t think numbers will be hurt by focusing on maintenance rather than expansion.

“I’m all for state parks, but the budget and money has to be spent wisely,” he said. “As long as we have parks in good shape and we have an area that needs a park, then number three is do we have the money to do that.”

The bill passed the House but hasn't gone to the Senate.

Missouri State Park Deputy Director, David Kelly, said the park system does have some aspects that need maintenance.

"As with any parks system, there are always maintenance needs," Kelly said in an email. "We are currently in the process of our annual review our statewide maintenance needs for all state parks and state historic sites." 

The previous expansion of visitors and sites came under former Missouri State Parks parks director Bill Bryan. He was fired from his position earlier this year. Since his start in 2009, Bryan added seven new parks throughout the state. 

Now, with parks under new leadership, it is uncertain if expansion will continue. 

Melanie Smith said she is unsure if any new visitation goals will be set, but the department wants to focus on customer service. To ensure quality, parks have customer comment cards available and the department regularly seeks public input during meetings and large projects. 

Kelly said the department will use its funds this year to repair and maintain its current sites and parks. 

"There are no plans to change the way we are marketing or managing state parks for the current fiscal year which started July 1, 2017," Kelly said.

The department is working on a new five-year strategic plan this fall.