Politics

A year after the legislature set aside an extra $18 million to make improvements to Kentucky’s state parks system, officials say the facilities have “turned the corner” on the way to being safer and more inviting to tourists.

Among the improvements made over the last year were reopening the pool at Cumberland Falls State Park, which had been closed for five years, and electrical repairs to the lodge at Barren River Lake State Park “to prevent a catastrophe.”

The lodge at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park also reopened last month after a fire in March 2016.

In a legislative interim committee meeting Wednesday, Kentucky State Parks Commissioner Donnie Holland said parks facilities were in disrepair because past legislatures had redirected park funding to other places in the state budget.

“We faced a pretty tough situation when we came on board,” Holland said. “It wasn’t a surprise, it had been well-documented before we got here.”

Last year, Holland announced that improvements would focus on “safety and aesthetic upgrades” to 17 resort parks in the state.

Holland said 69 percent of the $18 million dedicated for state park improvements had already been used up and more funds would be necessary.

He estimated that the state needs about $240 million in repairs across its 49 parks.

This year the General Assembly passed a bill that would allow the state to sell off naming rights to facilities and events held in the parks in order to raise more money for improvements.

Don Parkinson, secretary of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said he’s already fielding offers from individuals and businesses.

“We’ve talked to some people about individual naming rights about buildings,” Parkinson said. “But we’re not in the business of renaming parks or rivers or roads or anything like that.”

During the committee hearing, lawmakers also asked Parkinson about the recent announcement that two conventions scheduled to be held in Louisville had been canceled in response to a recently-enacted state religious expression bill.

The move came after California Attorney General Javier Becerra announced a ban on official travel from his state to Kentucky, saying that Senate Bill 17 allows students to discriminate against classmates based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Supporters say the legislation bolsters First Amendment protections for religious speech in public schools and universities.

Opponents have criticized the new law for language that protects religious and political student groups from being punished for how they select their members.

“We don’t know whether or not this is a real thing that’s going to last a long time,” Parkinson said of California’s travel ban. “The bill is the bill, but I think it’s been interpreted incorrectly. It’s not as damaging to the state tourism business as they would like to present it.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.