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Fairy Stone Park visits up in 2012

Sunday, January 13, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Visitation to Virginia’s state parks reached record levels in 2012, and Fairy Stone State Park was among those which saw increased visits from 2011.

Virginia state parks saw total of 8,366,179 visits last year, up from the previous record of 8,065,558 set in 2010, according to a release from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Visits fell to 7,836,246 in 2011.

Fairy Stone, one of the original six state parks opened by the DCR in 1936, saw an increase in attendance with 96,692 visits, up from 96,354 in 2011. As is the case with most state parks, Fairy Stone has benefited from a tight economy in recent years which compels Virginians to seek recreation closer to home, said Pat Eastwood, visitor services specialist at Fairy Stone.

“We see a lot more people doing ‘staycations,’” Eastwood said. In addition to Fairy Stone, she supervises visitor services in parks at Smith Mountain Lake, Occoneechee, Staunton River and Staunton River Battlefield. She said all the parks in her district are “seeing similar trends,” which can be beneficial.

“One of the things about Virginia state parks is people know what to expect in a sense,” she said. “They know they’ll have friendly staff, the same reservation policy (at each park), the same standards for campgrounds, a safe environment,” and a pet-friendly atmosphere.

To that end, Fairy Stone opened new equestrian camping facilities in October with 10 campsites, access to eight miles of horse trails and 10 covered horse stalls.

“We don’t have to try very hard (to get people to visit other Virginia state parks) because most of the time when people come to a state park, they enjoy it so much they want to go to others,” Eastwood said.

Statewide, overnight attendance in the state parks increased from 2011 by nearly 100,000 visit, according to the DCR release. Nancy Heltman, state parks operations director, said that also is largely due to the economy.

“Folks are looking for things to do close to home, and our park vacations are more affordable” than a lot of other vacations, she said. Cabins also are a good fit for budget-conscious people because “it’s better than a hotel because you can cook your own meals.”

Daily use of Fairy Stone rose last year to 63,822, up from 62,530 in 2011. Overnight visits fell from 33,824 in 2011 to 32,870, according to the DCR release. Eastwood said the parks have conducted more “special day” programs in recent years, from day of service events on holidays such as Earth Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Day to “First Day” hikes on Jan. 1. In addition, the park hosted a farmer’s market on Monday evenings last summer, and it frequently hosts weddings, she added.

Hiking trails are another attraction, and some parks, such as High Bridge Trail in Farmville, have begun using “linear trails” that link the parks to other trail networks. Heltman said that effort has paid big dividends, as attendance at High Bridge more than doubled in 2012.

“The reason we have so much support for those linear trails is because (communities) know it attracts people to the area,” Heltman said. “We try to promote what there is do in the parks (along) with what there is to do in the local area, so they don’t just go to the parks.”

Though not a linear trail park, Fairy Stone often works with the surrounding communities to tie in to local events, Eastwood said. The park hosts concerts each summer, partnering with the Reynolds Homestead for music events.

Fairy Stone also is unique, she said, because of its reputation as “the place to come for fairy stones,” or Staurolite minerals that are found there.

“No place else in the world is as known for that,” Eastwood said.

Both Heltman and Eastwood credited the DCR’s use of social media for expanding the audience for the state parks. Both write blogs and are active on Facebook and Twitter. Heltman said she got involved in social media early in the process when the DCR began using it in 2008.

The DCR release estimated the state parks had a total economic impact of $198,871,849 in 2012.

Heltman said that figure comes from a formula based on $75 per night per overnight visitor and $16 per daily use visitor. That figure factors in what users spend outside the parks, she said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed ending Virginia’s 17.5 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and replacing it with a .08-percent hike in sales tax. Though the impact is hard to guess, Heltman said, it’s possible that it could work in the state parks system’s favor.

“We see that when gas prices go up (people) might stay closer to home,” she said. “They’re not making significant out-of-state trips.”

Eastwood noted, however, that many of Fairy Stone’s guests come from North Carolina, a fact that might be aided by cheaper gas prices.

“By the same token,” Heltman added, “we might get some people who go to Fairy Stone who live in other parts of the state.”

Regardless of the causes, Heltman added that the Virginia State Parks have been both beneficiary and benefactor during the recession.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said.

 

 
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