However, the park, much like most other businesses, has not been immune to the effects of recent economic struggles in the United States. And while much of the park’s clientele comes from out of the area, local citizens also make an impact.
The problem, park manager John Jordan said, is that Trigg Countians seem largely unaware of what the park offers, and that a great deal of activities are of no or low cost to consumers.
“With the economy the way it is, people are staying closer to home so they can save on gas or accomodations elsewhere,” said Jordan, who was previously the park’s fiscal manager, was promoted to park manager at Carter Caves and then returned to Barkley in 2008 when the manager’s position opened. “This park is right in the back yard for the people here.”
According to the Kentucky State Parks Financial and Operations Strategic Plan, overall park visitation at Lake Barkley in 2008 was 72,094, down 10.8 percent from 2004 (80,849). Areas seeing the largest decline were campgrounds (down 23 percent) and Boots Randolph Golf Course (down 17.1 percent).
The plan lists the park’s strengths and threats, noting primitive campsites, the beach, lodge, golf course and dining room among strengths and the fitness center, convention center, Little River Lodge & Suites and RV and water & electric campsites among areas in need of improvement.
In 2007, revenue at the park was $4.3 million dollars, down from $5.1 million in 2004. However, revenue was a little more than $5 million in 2008, and Jordan said the park significantly closed what had been a widening gap between budgeted revenue and actual revenue.
Barkley was budgeted to lose approximately $600,000 this year, but Jordan said the actual number is currently tracking closer to $487,000. The park lost $1.4 million in 2007.
“The goal is to evaluate the information we get from vendors and see if anyone is interested in taking over operations,” Jordan said. “The economy has forced us to take a look at the way we manage and be more efficient with what we’ve got. We’ve made our bottom line better by utilizing what we have better.”
Among changes proposed by the state parks system is for food service and in some cases golf courses to be privatized, which could save the parks on some operating costs and also open the door for revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages. Jordan said no official overtures have been made to any potential private vendors yet. There is no firm timetable for such changes, but Jordan said he anticipates more information might become available in September.
Mary Schmidt, the park’s program supervisor and naturalist, said the park has placed more of an emphasis on events and activities that will draw more interest from locals, including a comedy dinner theater, horseback riding, the public beach and Valentine’s Day specials, among others. Locally, Schmidt said, the park’s most popular amenities are fishing and the beach.
“We have a lot of locals that spend the afternoon fishing or at the beach,” Schmidt said. “With some of the changes we’ve made to make these things and others more accessible to the community, we benefit from word of mouth. We get a lot of groups that come after hearing about people that have been here and enjoyed it.”
The park also benefits from close proximity to other local state parks – Kenlake and Kentucky Dam Village in Marshall County, Pennyrile Forest in Hopkins County and Mineral Mound in Lyon County.
“It’s very beneficial, especially in the golfing area,” Jordan said. “We have an excellent golf course superintendent (John Bloecher) who has made the course look great. And we’ve started running some specials, and I think that’s made an impact on our year. For playability and aesthetics, ours is rated among some of the best courses by some of the well-known course architects.”
Schmidt said the park is fortunate to have the volunteer assistance of Friends of Lake Barkley, a group of local citizens who work to sustain and improve the park and increase interest in it. The group is responsible for funding to continue the annual July 4 fireworks show when the state decided to cut funding for it several years ago.
“We are so thankful to have them because they help with our trails and just about anything we need,” Schmidt said.
Jordan credited Schmidt, who previously worked for Land Between the Lakes and came to Barkley in January, for vast improvements to the park’s recreation system.
“A lot of her programs are organized around nature awareness,” Jordan said. “She also has a marvelous bird-watching program.”
“We want to make people aware of what is here,” Schmidt said, noting that she keeps various snakes and other species in her office for exhibits. “We have a lot of unique animals right here in western Kentucky, and we think it’s important to show people that.”
Jordan said the majority of park employees live in the area, and local businesses are a major supporter of the park during the off-season. Still, attracting locals with an interest in but a lack of knowledge of what the park has to offer is important.
“I hear from people all the time that say, ‘I didn’t know you had that here.’ I’m not sure if it’s a lack of them hearing about it or if they perceive that it’s not for them, but it is,” Jordan said. “We have many things here that doesn’t cost anything to bring the family out to do or the cost is extremely reasonable. We’ve got something for everybody. It’s always important to let local people know that they’re an important and vital part of our park, and that’s true regardless of what state the economy is in. It’s their park.”
Visit the park’s website at parks.ky.gov/findparks/resortparks/lb/ or call 924-1131.