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?"