Matt Baker

Matt Baker, owner of Terrapin Adventures, climbs on the The High Ropes Challenge Course. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 18, 2012)

The new green at Maryland's state parks is cash, and lots of it.

This has been a banner year for the 66 parks, which logged nearly 11 million visitors by early December, 1.1 million more than at the same point last year. Long the destination of day trippers and tent dwellers, state parks have become a go-to spot for thousands of staycationers, who not only pay entry and campsite fees but also leave a trail of money through the communities just beyond their borders.

"Parks are destinations that create opportunity for people to enjoy the outdoors and each other," said Matt Baker, owner of Terrapin Adventures, a zip line and outdoor center in Howard County, just minutes from Patapsco Valley State Park. "And, of course, they also spend money."

A 2010 study by the state Department of Business and Economic Development said park visitors spend more than $567 million each year, producing a total economic impact of more than $650 million. Park activity generates $39 million in tax revenue and supports 10,000 jobs.

The state gives the parks a budget of $34 million.

Seventy percent of spending, the study says, occurred within 20 minutes of the parks in small gateway communities such as Hancock, McHenry and Savage. One of the biggest beneficiaries has been Berlin, seven miles from Assateague State Park; that park, with 1.8 million visitors this year, is the state's busiest.

Mayor Gee Williams, 64, a town native, said the watershed moment came in 1964, when the state built the Verrazano Bridge to replace a ferry that transported two or three cars at a time from the mainland to the barrier island.

"Almost immediately, our little town benefited. Visitors stopped on the way over for gas and ice and supplies, and then came into town for restaurants and taverns to take a break from the camping experience," he said. "As the state park added amenities and programs, the impact on the town of Berlin has steadily grown.

"It happened naturally. It wasn't part of any strategic plan."

Berlin's population, below 2,000 in the early 1970s, has more than doubled. In the past four years, the tidy, Victorian-style downtown has seen the number of businesses grow from 30 to 65, Williams said. Nearly one-third of the town's residents are employed in the retail or hospitality industries.

The town makes sure the Assateague crowd is plugged into its events: Bathtub Races in July, Peach Festival in August and a Fiddler's Convention in September. On Fridays in summer, the farmers' market is a magnet for campers on their way to the island.

"There's been more visible change in the last 21/2 years than I've seen in the whole rest of my lifetime," Williams said. "We've become a destination community from April through December."

Michael Day, Berlin's director of Economic and Community Development, said that while the town wouldn't "shrivel up and die" without Assateague, life is much better with a money-making machine in the backyard.

"The park is a great neighbor. On a rainy day, it's phenomenal what the park can do for us. We're packed," said Day. "And once they get sunburned and shriveled up at the ocean, they come and see us."

But the state park system is at a crossroads, a victim of its own success. This summer, parks filled to capacity 39 times, and visitors had to be turned away. Patapsco Valley, the second most popular park, reached its limit 12 times. Parks that never used to fill up — North Point in Baltimore County and Rocky Gap in Washington County — did so this year.

"We are the destination of choice for working families. Our camping has almost reached saturation," acknowledged Nita Settina, the state parks superintendent.

That's not to say that the state is ignoring the public's appetite for the outdoors. In January, Gov. Martin O'Malley included nearly $23 million in the capital budget for projects ranging from seven new park playgrounds and bathhouse renovations to pier replacements and boat ramp upgrades. Garrett County will receive $150,000 for construction of 30 miles of trails.

But those improvements might only entice more visitors. The state hasn't opened a new campground in decades. The last major structure built was the $1.3 million Discovery Center at Deep Creek Lake in 1999. The staff-to-visitor ratio is 1 staff person per 49,255 visitors (the national average is 1 to 35,840).

Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, thinks that's a shaky business model.

"Here we have these revenue generators, and yet they're underfunded and we turn people away," he said. "How is that good for the state, good for the county?"

Washington County is home to eight state parks. A recent study by the county put the annual economic impact at nearly $45 million and 6,700 jobs.

"We have problems in Washington County," Riford said. "We have lost 2,500 manufacturing jobs in the last five years and 19 downtown businesses have closed or relocated, and they haven't all been replaced. A park is not just a green space. It helps spread out the ups and downs of the economy.

"To have vibrant tourism, there has to be a there there. We're not Ocean City. We're not Annapolis or Baltimore. But we're doing pretty well in the skinny part of the state," he said.

Businesses from bike shops to fly shops have found parks to be good partners, formally and informally.

Baker, 55, found a perfect match with nearby Patapsco Valley State Park. After successful careers as an economist and health-care executive, Baker was bitten by the outdoors adventure bug during a 2004 family vacation to Costa Rica, when he rode his first zip line. He returned to Maryland to scout locations.

In the end, he put his zip line and other adrenaline-pumping, high-wire equipment at historic Savage Mill, but he signed a contract with the state to offer mountain biking, hiking and paddling adventures in the park. After four years, he's gone from guiding families and birthday groups to leading corporate team-building events and youth outdoors skills workshops.

"People want to spend their time doing adventures, not driving to them," said Baker. "Using Patapsco as a base makes it really easy. People can't believe how beautiful and rugged it is. Mountain bikers call it Moab of the East."

The 18 white pine cabins at the award-winning Savage River Lodge in Garrett County are surrounded by 750 acres of state land that provide hiking and snowshoeing opportunities.

It's not just outdoors-oriented businesses that benefit from state parks.

Riford said Washington County motel occupancy was up 6 percent in the first six months of this year as Civil War history buffs tried to beat the crowds at 150th anniversary re-enactments at South Mountain and Antietam. The Western Maryland Rail Trail is worth $3 million annually in local impact at restaurants, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and laundromats.

In November 2011, Randy and Penny Pittman, owners of Weaver's Restaurant in Hancock, opened Blue Goose Fruit Market and Bakery at the edge of town. Out back are two parks, the federally owned C&O Canal Towpath and the state-owned Western Maryland Rail Trail.

"It's all about location," said Penny Pittman. "We owned the restaurant for 21 years. A huge amount of our summer traffic — 40 percent of the business — came off the trails."

At their second location, she and her husband hope to attract famished hikers and bikers with a craving for fresh, locally grown fruit, pies baked in-house and hand-dipped ice cream.

"We lost three major industries over 10 years, and that was 900 jobs," said Pittman, who also is the president of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce. "Then along came the rail trail and upgrades to the C&O Canal path. Small towns need to take advantage of what they're given."

In 2008, the chamber put up rustic light posts and banners marking where the trail and town meet. It prints the rail trail map and it hopes to work with the state to put better signage on the trail to list amenities.

The Pittmans will add bike racks outside the Blue Goose, free Wi-Fi and maybe grab-and-go sandwiches.

"We'll learn what we need to do to cater to them. We think we're onto something," she said.

Riford and other business leaders around the state think so, too.

"Tourists come in and spend their money. We don't have to build them a new school. We don't have to build them a new sewer plant," Riford said. "We could use more of that product."

Williams agrees.

"I am a strong advocate for investing in state parks. I tell business and political leaders that there's an outstanding return on investing in state parks for long-term economic growth," said Williams. "I tell them if they don't have a relationship with their state park, they're missing an opportunity."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com