Kids will be able to frolic in a splash pad at Sesquicentennial State Park, boaters will enjoy upgraded amenities at a new marina at Dreher Island State Park and campers will have much more room to spread out at Wateree State Park.
The parks in the Midlands are getting major upgrades in the next 18 months as the State Park Service aims to increase revenue to become self-sufficient.
“I can’t remember in my career ever having this many opportunities to make improvements at the parks,” said Phil Gaines, director of state parks. “It’s very exciting.”
The changes aren’t all in the Midlands – 10 new camper cabins are being built at Lake Hartwell, for instance. And they aren’t all focused on revenue; a long-running problem with the sewage system at Santee is slated to be fixed. But Gaines is especially excited about the major changes coming to parks in the center of the state.
The splash pad at Sesqui is the first in the park system. The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism has been trying for years to lure more people to a park that is underused despite being in a high-population area. Opening the park service’s first dog park a few years back helped, and paving the trail around the park lake has lured more people out to walk for exercise. But Sesqui still lured only 168,861 visitors last year, ranking 12th among 47 state parks.
Back in the 1950s, Sesqui routinely topped all state parks in use. Most of the more than 500,000 visitors during peak years were drawn during the warm months to the swimming area at the park’s lake. But the popularity of lake swimming dwindled with the growth of community and backyard pools. Sesqui closed its swimming area in 2004.
Now a new water feature is expected to draw people back to the park on Two Notch Road in Northeast Richland. The agency is spending $500,000 on the 2,800-square foot play area that will sport several features squirting and pulsing water. Another $250,000 will be spent on a bathroom and other amenities around the splash pad, which will be between the current campground entrance road and the main parking area.
A similar splash pad at Saluda Shoals Park, an Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission facility on the northwest side of Columbia, has been a huge success.
Gaines said the construction will begin soon and the Sesqui splash pad is scheduled to open in summer 2015. The few remaining swimming areas at state parks are open less than three months a year, but Gaines anticipates the splash pad operating from the first sustained warm spell in spring until the temperatures drop for good in fall.
The initial plan is for admission to the splash pad to be free after visitors have paid to enter the park. That should provide an incentive for nearby families with young children to buy annual park passports.
At Dreher Island, winter boaters will start to notice the changes in a few weeks when workers start removing the nearly 40-year-old marina. “It’s done a good job, but it’s worn out,” Gaines said. The new $1 million marina will feature larger slips to accommodate the growth in boats in recent years, and it’ll have the new utilities required for those boats.
Dreher Island also is getting 10 new camper cabins, scaled-down facilities that offer an option between the high-end cabins and the campground. The park service installed its first two camper cabins at Lake Hartwell a couple of years ago and immediately realized two weren’t enough, Gaines said. That’s why 10 more are going in at Lake Hartwell, too.
The Dreher Island camper cabins will be built around the two least-used picnic shelters at the park. Large groups could rent all of the cabins around the shelter, then use the shelter for their meals and group activities. Gaines hopes to have the camper cabins ready in late 2015 or early 2016.
At Lake Wateree, 50 new campsites will nearly double the park’s camping capacity. The current 72 campsites are all on the island portion of the park. The new campsites, a $1.1 million project, will be on the peninsula leading to the island. About 30 percent of the new sites will be on the waterfront, and the rest will have views of the lake.
Lake Wateree, like most of the parks on large lakes, books all of its campsites during warm-weather holiday weekends. The park service wants to add capacity at those parks in the drive to bring in enough revenue to cover all of its expenses. Currently, the state parks revenue covers 90 percent of expenses.
“Dreher Island and Lake Wateree already make money,” Gaines said. “The splash pad is part of our plan to get Sesqui self-sufficient and in the black.”