Ron Olson's Challenge
Olson is quick to smile but turns serious when he talks about the state parks. Michigan has ninety-eight parks and recreation areas that cover 285,000 acres, from miles of Great Lakes beaches to remote hiking trails in the Porcupine Mountains. The parks include more than 1,300 buildings, nearly 500 miles of roads, and hundreds of sewer and water systems. They attract 22 million annual visitors, who contribute an estimated $650 million to Michigan's economy. Yet Michigan does not allocate any tax revenues to its park system-and that's made it increasingly difficult to manage.
"It's probably as challenged today as it's ever been," Olson says. "We have over a billion dollars in assets, and we have documented needs of about $38 million a year for infrastructure and preventative maintenance-and right now we're only able to budget $2 million."
As recently as 1970, tax dollars covered more than two-thirds of the state parks budget. But that percentage nose dived as the state's economy fol lowed the Detroit automakers toward disaster. By 2003, the state general fund was contributing just $9 million toward the department's $54 million budget. Lawmakers zeroed it out in 2004, the year Olson was hired.