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Tourism and Recreation Department ready for summer fun at state parks

Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt
Charlie Neuenschwander
Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department
Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt

A year ago, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department was facing numerous challenges, but things are looking up at state parks as the summer vacation season begins.


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Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. And our guest is Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. Thanks for joining us.

Shelley Zumwalt: Thank you guys for having me. I'm super excited to be on.

Shawn Ashley: This is the time of year when tourism and recreation get really serious in Oklahoma with festivals, family outings, vacations and more. You took over as executive director last October and told lawmakers in January that the work that needed to be done was staggering. What have you been able to do to address the numerous challenges facing the agency?

Shelley Zumwalt: It's an interesting dichotomy. You mentioned summer is really our time to be active and really be, you know, it's our busy time, it's our high season. We are serious about our fun and tourism and recreation during the summer. We actually just launched a new campaign called The Best Summer Ever that really features our state parks and the opportunities there for families and, you know, really anyone and be a part of the best summer ever. But the balance dichotomy there is the situation that I walked into in October, which was, you know, dire is a word that I think I would edge away from now because you learn something new every day. But at the time that I gave that talk, when I was in my budget hearing where I said that, it did look pretty dire. We were facing a huge long list of deferred maintenance at the parks. Serious things that could endanger the safety of either the staff there or guests and essentially shut down the park. And when we do that, you know, there's a loss of revenue and you're in that cycle of really never getting out of crisis. And there had never really been a firm financial foundation at the agency, or at least for a long time, to make sure that we were planning for that deferred maintenance while also taking care of the other obligations we had.

And so while the picture is a lot more, I think, pleasant now, at that time it was pretty dire and we're working towards how do we fund these obligations while also being good stewards of the land and what is the long term plan for that? Because that's really my goal - is that whether I'm here or there's someone else in the seat, that we have a one year, a two-year or a five-year, a ten-year plan for taking care of these parks, we have $1,000,000,000 in assets and not enough money going into the year. We just hired a new CFO, Leah Tucker McHughes, who I started my state journey with as a budget analyst, and she's been a CFO at many state agencies, including in OMES (Office of Management and Enterprise Services) when I was there. I respect her, I trust her, and there's no one else I'd rather be walking this journey of, you know, figuring out how to set this agency up for success.

Shawn Ashley: With what other things are you doing to address the financial issues of the department?

Shelley Zumwalt: That's a great question. It's one of those situations where we talk about frequently with staff what are the different ways we're attacking this? And it's really not just one set of plans. It's attacking from many different opportunities that the agency has. The agency actually has a foundation that can do projects for the parks. It's called the Parks Foundation, and it's really been not very active the past 20 years. And so, we're working with them to try to get more membership in that and more funds available. Additionally, we're doing interim studies on the deferred maintenance needs for the parks as well as potential use tax opportunities that other states have utilized, like Texas and Arkansas, to a lot of success. We're also doing an internal study on the parking pass that is currently a form of funding that the agency receives. And, you know, is there a way we can make that better? Is it doing what it set out to do? What is the long-term plan for it? Because it's not really hitting that fiscal impact that we had anticipated when that law was passed. And is there a better way to approach that either through a use tax or altering that parking pass program so that it does get more revenue for the agency?

So those are a lot of things that are going on. In addition, we did a whole bunch of boring basic budget stuff that really is not probably good entertainment for people, but it includes lowering P-Card (purchase card) limits, really reorganizing how we make budgeting decisions from the park level, park manager level up, the approvals, all of those things that really add procedure and accountability that I think while not, you know, a lot of fun to hear about, are the basics of building that firm foundation so that we know where every dollar is going and we can account for it and really make educated decisions on how we're spending our money.

Dick Pryor: What do you see as the role of state parks in Oklahoma? Why they are important?

Shelley Zumwalt: The recreation role is obviously something that is available to any citizen, whether they're in-state or out-of-state, to really go and have an opportunity to be out in nature and to explore land that is being preserved for that sole purpose. And you can either be on a solo adventure or you can go and stay at one of our lodges or one of our cabins or, you know, there's so many opportunities to really, you know, size your experience with our state parks. Additionally, I think for me personally, and I think this is something for a lot of people, there is that tie to either childhood or a family gathering that takes place at these parks. My family is a family that always did family reunions and we're doing one coming up next month at one of our state parks. It was planned before I got the job. So, we are tried and true dedicated members of the state park family reunion club.

But that being said, I think that for a lot of people it's a chance to revisit a time that they can't actually go back in time to see. It's their family members that may not be here anymore and the times that they had with them, and to go back and to really see the places preserved in the same way and to be able to have that little slice of, you know, when I was a kid, I did this and when my dad was a kid, he did this. And we're going all the way back into, you know, a history and a rich history of people participating and enjoying the land that’s set aside just for those memories, that recreation, and that opportunity to be together. And that for me, is something that I feel acutely but also when I go out into the communities and talk to people about why our state parks are important, I hear that reflected back as well.

Dick Pryor: From time to time over the years, there's been a concern about the financial viability of state parks. In your mind, does each park have to be financially viable and stand on its own?

Shelley Zumwalt: You know, I think it's a mix and I do think that there is an opportunity right now for the agency. We are pursuing revenue raising opportunities within our parks. How can we bring in more steady income and not be reliant on state appropriations to supplement the needs that will come up either, you know, as far as deferred maintenance or emergencies or really developing the area in a way that is preserving the lands, but also really giving economic opportunities to those small communities, either through, you know, like adding kayaking and rafting in the summer and certain areas that that's not there. You know, that's not just a recreation opportunity, that's an economic opportunity, that's a workforce opportunity.

And if you'll allow me to segue way just a little bit on that, we just reopened all the state restaurants and that was a huge undertaking that I think you'll probably ask me about later. But one of the things that's really important about that is the impact reopening those restaurants had. You know, it created over 300 jobs and almost half a million dollars that were put back into those communities, either through salaries or money spent, you know, or taxes. And so, it's really a lot of those things that come into play when we're talking about it. And I think looking at those as epicenters of economic activity, they're all viable in a way. It's just how do we, you know, do that math to see what is the deferred maintenance and the cost that we need to put in to maintaining this asset.

I do think that it's not about closing state parks, though. I want to say that because that comes up all the time and we all have, you know, this attachment to those parks. But it is sometimes partnering with another entity to make sure that we can maintain those parks with that partnership as opposed to the state managing it solely. And so, we're looking at all those opportunities, including tribal agreements, you know, as far as what is the best use of that land and who are the stewards of that land to best take care of it.

Shawn Ashley: Where do you see tourism and recreation headed to improve its service to the people of Oklahoma?

Shelley Zumwalt: I love this question because I think that if there's ever anyone that says “we're done, it's great,” then you know that there's something missing there. It's kind of like whenever you do those surveys as director of an agency, what do you need to work on as an agency every single time it is communication. Whether you're good at it or you're terrible at it you can always get better at communication with your staff members. And for customer service, we can always get better at it. And I think that's the challenge too, because these parks kind of operated in their own little areas and had a lot of autonomy. And what, and sometimes that's good because you're not going to operate Little Sahara the way you do Beavers Bend, and there's expertise involved in that.

But where you do get a little, you know, some friction is that we don't have standards. So, when you go to a state park, the way that the customer experiences that lodge or that park or whatever they are experiencing can sometimes vary greatly. We just hired a new parks director. He is going to be standardizing like our top five core values for the parks and the actions you take. And just examples are the customer always has the right-of-way. You know, I learned that the first day I waited tables. The customer goes first, and when someone approaches you, you look them in the eye. They seem really basic, but if people that are working for you have missed those opportunities to learn them, I think that the customer experience starts to degrade if we haven't got the basics.

And so, it's really starting with the granular and working our way up to say, “What is the ultimate experience look like? Where do we have opportunities to improve and how do we standardize it across all of our park experiences? So, no matter if you're in the Panhandle or, you know, at Lake Murray, you're getting the same type of experience as a customer. And that's a huge challenge. We are not there yet, but we're working on it and we're aware that there is improvement that can be had.

Shawn Ashley: You've been leading the Tourism and Recreation Department for less than a year. What can you point to that you consider today a success?

Shelley Zumwalt:  Well, I'm going to give you an example that I alluded to just a minute ago that you probably anticipated. But I'm really proud of the restaurant RFP and the transparency we did it with. You know, this wasn't really covered very much, but we knew going into the RFP that we would get a lot of open records requests, rightfully so, on how did we choose the vendor that ultimately got the contract? And as part of that, we decided to independently, during the press conference announcing the vendor, release not only the RFP scoring sheet, but all of the beds, the actual contract and the evaluation tool so that anyone who wanted to see why that decision was made did not have to ask for anything. It's right there. And it's still posted on our website because I think that that's part of establishing that trust and being transparent.

Another thing we did is we held an RFI, which is a request for information, prior to the RFP because we wanted to do open houses to talk about what we were looking for out of this RFP and also give any potential vendors the opportunity to come and see these restaurants so they could see the potential there. And what we saw happened was not only did we get vendors, but we also got community members that came in and told stories about how excited they are that the restaurants could potentially be open again for the summer and what a great asset that was to Watonga or Wilburton. And it was great for me to hear that because like anyone else, I can get in my own bubble and I knew what the mission was and I knew what the goal was, but it expanded hearing about the impact it had on those communities.

And I think if I had to point to one thing that I'm proud of, it's that we executed on that RFI in that RFP and picked a vendor and successfully opened by Memorial Day. And I think that we have a great vendor that is working to be a part of those communities serving great food, and they're doing a lot of good for the state in partnership with the agency, and that is the ultimate good result there.

Dick Pryor: This is a timely interview. Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, thanks for being with us on Capitol Insider.

Shelley Zumwalt: Absolutely. It's been great. Thank you, guys.

Dick Pryor: For more information, go to a quorumcall.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org and listen to Capitol Insider where you get your podcasts. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

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Dick Pryor has more than 30 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November 2016.
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