Parks waiting to resume operations, director says

Thursday, May 7, 2020

By Samantha Jones

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday that recreational travel from other states to Arkansas can resume, but Eureka Springs playgrounds and campgrounds will stay closed for a while longer.

At the Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission’s regular meeting Tuesday, April 28, director Justin Huss said playgrounds, campgrounds, rentals, restrooms and the downhill mountain biking shuttle are still shut down. Huss said his recommendation is to wait to see what happens with state parks before opening anything back up. When Eureka Springs parks amenities do reopen to the public, Huss said, it will happen in steps.

“There’s lots of talk about stages and phases,” Huss said. “We have a couple of steps. The first step for us would be the RV parking and cabin rentals.”

Starting with RV parking and cabin rentals, Huss said, would buy some time before opening up public restrooms. Huss called public restrooms the commission’s “biggest challenge of providing a safe, sanitary spot.” He said the commission plans to meet Tuesday, May 19, and his recommendations could change then.

“That will be after state parks plans to open their lodges and marinas and places like that,” Huss said. “At that point, I think we might consider coming back with services such as regular tent camping and boat rentals.”

Huss said he wants to see how things go when the state parks reopen as a way to assess how Eureka Springs parks should move forward.

“If we’re seeing any trends in a different direction, we can adjust or choose to wait longer,” Huss said.

He suggested bringing staff back before completely reopening, reminding the commission of its decision on April 6 to furlough employees until further notice.

“The decision to furlough our staff at this time was difficult and has been challenging,” Huss said. “I’m proud of the commission’s quick action in taking appropriate steps to protect our community and employees.”

Huss said there’s a lot to do before welcoming visitors back to use parks amenities, and that’s why having the staff back is so important.

“We have been able to utilize staff in limited capacity … that allows us to take care of basic tasks,” Huss said. We can and should bring staff back before we are full. We need some time to work on stuff. We still have a major water line that needs to be completed at Lake Leatherwood.”

Huss said the commission will need to consider how to offer amenities while staying sanitary and safe. That could include washing boats after each use and providing personal protective equipment for employees, Huss said. He reiterated that the bathrooms will be a big challenge.

“Are we comfortable putting staff in that?” Huss asked.

Huss suggested moving toward a soft open in June or July.

“I think there’s some things to be seen. We just don’t know yet, and the next two to three weeks are pretty critical … for everybody to see what’s going on as these openings happen,” Huss said. “It’s either going to be terrible or turn out OK.”

For those who visit the trails, Huss said, he asks that they observe proper social distancing.

“We look forward to providing recreational opportunities at the soonest opportunity,” Huss said. “We ask that citizens and guests continue to practice social distancing while visiting our parks. We must remain vigilant and follow guidelines.”

The future of the parks system is uncertain, Huss said. While the commission has around $63,000 in reserves, Huss said, he expects a shortfall that matches that amount. On the bright side, Huss said, several monthly bills such as fuel, electricity and water should be dropping, and government relief could become available.

“While I’m certainly optimistic there may be some relief for local governments, this may take some time to be passed and work its way down to us,” Huss said. “As we’ve seen with other support programs, it will be some time before we see this reimbursement, if at all.”

A big challenge for the commission, Huss said, is that tax revenue will be delayed by two months.

“This will be a challenging period for us,” he said. “While the financial situation is concerning and serious, I feel strongly it is not the correct measure to return to limited or full operations at this time.”

Huss continued with his report, saying the greenhouse and gardens are progressing nicely. The tasks for the immediate future are keeping the grass mowed, grounds clean and meeting calendar obligations such as water testing, Huss said.

“The staff has been flexible and is always dedicated to protecting and caring for our resources,” Huss said.

The greenhouse has provided thousands of native plants, Huss said, that have been planted throughout town.

“We’re looking forward to the blooming of these new plantings in the weeks to come,” Huss said.

Later at the meeting, Huss addressed the financial situation in more depth. Because the tax revenue won’t come in for two months, Huss said, the commission will be running on cash only.

“We want to do some things, but we don’t have the money coming in the door,” Huss said. “We have bills to pay and supplies … but we’re not buying anything extra we don’t need.”

Huss said he’d be happy to hold workshops via Zoom weekly to keep the commission updated on the finances. He said he’s grateful the commission has money in reserves to get by until the tax revenue kicks in.

“We have reserves. That’s a starting point,” Huss said. “I’d certainly be up for keeping the conversation going. I do think it’s going to be a few dynamic weeks in front of us.”

Also at the meeting, the commission voted to allow employee Nicky Boyette to answer questions regarding finances and approved the third- and fourth-quarter financials for 2019.

The commission’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 19. It will be streamed live on Youtube and Channel 21.

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