DELHI – Every weekend, sounds of children squealing in the water, mariachi music, and people generally having a good time waft through the gates of McConnell State Recreation Area.
But those days could soon come to an end, as the State of California plans to close both McConnell and nearby George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area in a cost-savings maneuver – unless the community raises enough money to keep the parks open.
The loss of those nearly 125 acres would represent a major loss to the area, said the East Merced Resource Conservation District's Cindy Lashbrook, who is spearheading the effort to save the parks. Without the parks, where would local residents camp, learn about natural vegetation, and enjoy the Merced River?
“There aren't very many places in this county to do that,” Lashbrook said.
The closure notices, announced May 2011, took locals by surprise. State Park closures have so long been a tool for political posturing Lashbrook didn't expect the state legislature would ever approve the maneuver.
But with $22 million in budget reductions planned for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, California State Parks expects to close up to 70 of its 279 state parks – including Turlock Lake, which the Turlock Irrigation District will discuss on Tuesday.
“We regret closing any park,” said Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, “but with the proposed budget reductions over the two-year period, we can no longer afford to operate all parks within the system.”
The closures were carefully considered, per the parks system, to protect the most significant resources and the most trafficked parks. At least 92 percent of today's attendance will be retained, and 94 percent of revenues will be preserved, according to the California State Park.
Though local parks may not have ranked highly with the California State Park system, they're of vital importance to the region, said Delhi Municipal Advisory Council Chairman Richard Jantz.
“These parks are very important to this community,” Jantz said. “The state tells us that 40,000 people visit McConnell annually. That's significant.”
And those visitors, many from nearby communities like Hilmar and Turlock, often travel through Delhi on their way to the state park. That means Delhi will likely lose tax revenues from those visitors buying gasoline, snacks and beverages.
But saving the parks means raising money – and fast.
Running the two parks costs about $155,000 annually, while only about $91,000 is raised in gate revenues. That leaves a $64,000 gap for Delhi to address by a March 31, state-imposed deadline.
For now, the $64,000 question is where that money will come from.
The Delhi MAC's cupboards are already bare. As of Thursday, the organization had $5.19 in its bank account.
Merced County won't be of much help either, said County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, whose district includes the two parks. The cash-crunched county already has expenditures 12 percent above revenues for the year – and is looking at potentially “difficult decisions.”
“There's not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel,” Kelsey said. “... It's going to be a hard balancing act between providing necessary services and the ones we all really like.”
But if Delhi or another non-profit can't raise the money, the parks could be shut off to visitors on July 1. In a best-case scenario, operating the parks would be farmed out to for-profit concessionaires, who would likely provide lesser levels of maintenance, according to Lashbrook.
With a little over a month and a half until the deadline, just over $3,000 has been raised of the $64,000 needed. To keep the parks open, the group must also commit to keep up the fundraising for three years, though Lashbrook hopes increasing attendance will reduce the fundraising needed in subsequent years.
It's going to be a challenge, both Lashbrook and Jantz admitted.
But that challenge could bring opportunity with it, Jantz said.
The Delhi MAC, somewhat rudderless with only a third of its seats currently filled, has been searching for an issue to rally the citizenry. Saving the local state parks could become the issue to unite Delhi, Jantz said.
“This really lends itself to that,” Jantz said. “These parks mean a lot to this community.”
Save McConnell and Hatfield State Parks organizers will hold a strategizing meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Sarah Clegg Conference Room, located at 16091 Locust Ave., Delhi.
To donate, write checks to East Merced Resource Conservation District with “Save the Parks” in the memo line, and mail to EMRCD, 2135 Wardrobe Ave., Suite C, Merced, CA 95341 or visit emrcd.org/save-mcconnell-and-hatfield-state-parks