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State Parks get gubernatorial boost – and new splash area

South Boston News
Gov. Terry McAuliffe with State Parks and DCR representatives at Staunton River State Park on Monday. (Photo courtesy Virginia State Parks staff) / April 20, 2017
“I saved the best for last,” said Terry McAuliffe as he completed the first-ever tour of all 37 Virginia State Parks by a Virginia governor on Monday.

McAuliffe’s travels in his fourth year in office brought him to Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, home to Staunton River, Staunton River Battlefield and Occoneechee State Parks. Along with achieving a small measure of history, McAuliffe also took part in a celebration to mark a major addition to the area parks.

The governor and his wife, Dorothy, grabbed shovels and turned dirt for the groundbreaking of a water spray/splash park at Occoneechee State Park in Clarksville, on the shores of Buggs Island Lake.

Occoneechee’s 1.1 million spray park will be the second such attraction inside a Virginia State Park. When completed, it will have more than 25 water features. The opening is set for spring 2018.

Before heading off to Clarksville for the Monday groundbreaking, McAuliffe gathered that morning with park and recreation staff at Staunton River State Park for a celebration of the award-winning State Parks system.

McAuliffe’s visit at Staunton River included a dedication event for the International Dark Sky Area, which is one of only about two dozen such stargazing sites in the world. The field next to the visitors center has received new signs to inform visitors of the park’s astronomical bona fides.

McAuliffe, the First Lady and their children rose early on Monday to gaze at the stars at Staunton River. “I saw Saturn and a constellation with millions of stars,” said McAuliffe, his voice ringing with excitement.

An International Dark Sky Park is kept free of artificial light pollution. The purpose of a Dark Sky park is generally to promote astronomy. The absence of light allows visitors to the park to view the sky much like our ancestors who lived before the invention of the electric light bulb.

Earlier in the weekend, the governor participated in an archeological dig at the Staunton River Battleground Park. The site, known as the Wade Site, has been used as an archaeological field school for students from Longwood University and others since 1998. Investigation there has yielded information on native life along the banks of the Staunton River from 1000-1450 A.D.

While the governor’s visit to area State Parks was punctuated by official duties, he said his park forays are more than a “driveby.” He and his family use the parks — they hike, camp, canoe and kayak.

So do many of the 10 million others who visited Virginia State Parks last year, bringing in more than $225 million in revenue to the Commonwealth — a fact that McAuliffe said underscored his visit.

“I am 99.9 percent focused on economic development,” he said.

“Occoneechee State Park contributed $4.2 million to the local economy last year,” McAuliffe added.

McAuliffe is the first Virginia governor to visit every state park. He said he completed the tour to highlight the importance of the park system to economic development in Virginia.

“It’s important for me as an advocate of the parks to bring publicity to the State Parks,” which he also called an integral part of his new Virginia Economy —the administration’s recommendations for repositioning the state economy to support more economic growth by increasing private sector jobs.

“People need to know what treasures we have or what a special bargain the parks are,” said McAuliffe.

Aside from the promoting the parks system, McAuliffe also discussed a policy change that he said has saved money on the development of the Occoneechee splash park.

“It is the first state project of this magnitude involving local permitting. It saves time and thousands of dollars,” he said.

Last year, McAuliffe signed Executive Directive 7 to allow state projects to go through a local permitting process. McAuliffe said he would like to see the directive enacted into law before he leaves office.

The catalyst for the directive stemmed from a complaint he received from a State Park friends organization, McAuliffe explained. They wondered why they had to spend nearly 50 percent of the cost for a project on state permitting. The same permits, if issued locally, would have cost about $200.

The splash/spray park was designed by Keith Stanley of Brockenbrough Engineering out of Richmond. The general contractors for the project are Warfield-based R.F. Howerton. Project Manager Michael Tanner said he expects to begin construction in the next 30 days, and weather permitting, hopes to complete his work in about 300 days, but the site won’t officially open until May 2018.

McAuliffe thanked the many people he said who help make Virginia’s park system and Occoneechee a success, from the 3,700 park system employees to Senator Frank Ruff who “made certain the money for Occoneechee’s spray park stayed in the budget in 2015.”

He also thanked employees of the Department of Conservation and Recreation who work the parks at the state level and locally, Occoneechee Park Manager Scott Shanklin, and DCR Director Clyde Cristman, Director of State Parks Craig Seaver, Assistant DCR Director Tom Smith and DCR Finance Director Rochelle Altholz and Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward.

He also praised Jim Wilkerson who heads the Friends Group for Occoneechee State Park for his support.

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