Eileen Larrabee's testimony before the Assembly standing committee on tourism, parks, arts and sports development

ALBANY, NY - November 16, 2015 - Committee Chair Markey, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss with you the important role state parks and historic sites play in New York’s economy and highlight a number of projects that are contributing to the revitalization of New York’s incomparable state park system.

I am Eileen Larrabee, Associate Director of the Alliance for New York State Parks, an initiative of the Open Space Institute. For four decades, OSI has been among New York’s leading land conservation nonprofits.

Through its 40 year history, OSI has added more than 40,000 acres to New York’s state parks, accounting for more than 10 percent of the state park system’s total acreage. During that time, we, along with our conservation partners, have more than doubled the acreage of such premier natural landscapes as Minnewaska, Fahnestock, Thacher, Moreau Lake and Sterling Forest State Parks.

Four years ago, prompted by the deteriorating state of New York’s signature parks, OSI launched a new program, the Alliance for New York State Parks, aimed at revitalizing the state’s spectacular but aging park system.

Today, we stand with our parks advocacy partners, PTNY in applauding Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the legislature for their collective commitment to reversing decades of debilitating state park under-investment.

In a short period of time, state parks have seen a resounding turnaround. Over the past four years, $380 million has been invested in our state parks. Public buildings and facilities are being repaired and improved; recreational attractions, such as trails and swimming pools, are being upgraded; long-ignored, failing electrical and water systems are being addressed; and new playgrounds, campgrounds and picnic pavilions are being built.

This commitment of public funding is also leveraging new private investment. I am happy to report that OSI is raising private dollars to amplify the state’s commitment. As of now, we have raised more than $10 million in private funds and grants to enhance park improvement efforts.

Highlights of our efforts include:

  • $2.1 million toward a $6.8 million nature center at Letchworth State Park, where OSI is funding exhibits for the new building and creating an endowment fund to care for the center into the future.
  • At Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County, OSI has raised $1.2 million toward the restoration of the beach complex and is embarking on a new project to transform the park’s public gateways though improved wayfinding and trailheads.
  • At Thacher Park outside Albany, we are raising $1 million, again leveraging state funds, to build a new visitor center for the beloved park.
  • At Riverbank State Park in Harlem, we are about to launch a $600,000 campaign to make extensive improvements to the park’s popular public theater space.
  • And finally, at Minnewaska State Park in Ulster County, OSI is committed to raising $3 million toward a new $7.3 million gateway visitor center at the spectacular park. We’ve also committed $1.9 million to restore the park’s iconic carriage roads which make the park and its inspiring views accessible for bikers and walkers of all ages and abilities.

We are extraordinarily grateful for the state’s renewed commitment to improving parks, and honored to be in a position to stretch those public dollars, wherever possible – all in order to create the best park experiences for the system’s growing number of visitors.

In seeking the best experience for park goers, I reiterate our continuing concern for the State Park’s stagnant operating funds. Over the last several years, the agency’s operating budget has been cut by 23 percent and it is functioning today with 1,500 fewer staff than in 2008.

Of particular concern is that this significant funding drop-off comes at a time when the agency and all of us here are celebrating a 10 percent increase in state park visitation. As we come together today to discuss the role state parks and historic sites play as tourism attractions and destination, it is critical to recognize that it’s not enough to get people to visit a park once. They need to have a positive experience so that they return again and again – that means a welcoming, safe environment; attentive staff; and clean and functioning bathrooms, swimming pools and campgrounds.

And while I am on the subject of park visitors, allow me to call your attention to a series of park visitors' studies OSI has issued over the past several years. The reports delve into the demographics and ethnic diversity of state park users. They also seek to capture particulars of the overall park experience – from personal connections to the parks and potential areas of improvement to the economic impact visitors have on the local economies.

Among the key findings of the six different studies commissioned by OSI is that New York’s state parks are much more than local community assets. They are economic drivers and valued regional destinations. I would also underscore that our surveys demonstrate a direct connection between New York City residents and the state parks that surround the five boroughs.

With this being said, I again express gratitude to members of the Assembly for your ongoing support for New York’s State Parks. And in particular, I thank you for acknowledging that our tremendous state parks are critical to a vibrant and diverse tourism industry in New York State.

Thank you very much for your time.

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