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Partnership looks at ways to bolster attendance at forest

Partnership looks at ways to bolster attendance at forest
Partnership looks at ways to bolster attendance at forest
Bob Sawtelle, assistant property manager at Wyandotte Woods State Recreation Area inside Harrison-Crawford/Wyandotte Complex, walks beside the swimming pool at Wyandotte Woods. It was losing several thousands of gallons of water a day, down a sinkhole, before it was closed in 2001. (Photo by Randy West)

A significant decline in attendance at Harrison-Crawford/Wyandotte Complex has more to do with the economy than the closing of the popular Olympic-size swimming pool two years ago, said property manager Pete Thorn. But while he is quick to point out that there are plenty of things to do at the forest besides swim, he agrees that a pool wouldn’t hurt.
A new pool, an inn and a conference center wouldn’t hurt either. All are being considered.
Thorn estimated an average year’s attendance at between 350,000 to 500,000. The past two years, both without a pool, have not been average.
Last year, about 300,000 guests visited the sprawling forest and the Wyandotte Woods State Recreation Area within it, Thorn said, and so far this year he estimates about half that. With the help of deer season, he expects to total about 200,000 visitors by year’s end.
‘We are a forest proper … as opposed to, say, a state park property; consequently, we have a little different philosophy as far as recreation is concerned,’ Thorn said.
While the forest puts a high priority on resource management, ‘recreation is important,’ Thorn said. And, in its heyday, one of the main attractions was the Olympic-size pool.
It opened in 1979 and has never had a major overhaul. The pool needs a new pump, filter system, and repairs to plumbing and structural faults.
‘We have spent a lot of money on the pool. The problems that we have at the pool are not problems that can be taken care of with daily maintenance,’ Thorn said.
The problems could be taken care of with $1.5 million. That funding may never come.
The pool was never a money-making prospect, Annual personnel and supplies cost about $100,000, while the pool’s average gross income was $22,000 during its last two years of operation, Thorn said.
‘My biggest thought about the reason we are down this year is the economy. If it were just the pool, I would be the only property down. Hopefully, if the economy turns around, our attendance will, too,’ Thorn said.
This fall, Thorn and other state parks and forest officials will be looking at a statewide fix to attendance woes. Changes are already being made at Harrison-Crawford state forest, but another group has been brainstorming.
The Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau have been in discussions with the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources regarding a partnership which could result in the development of an inn with ‘conference facilities, food service, other amenities, a pool ‘ indoor or outdoor, or both,’ said Jim Epperson, director of the CVB.
Such inns, called ‘park inns,’ are already found on other DNR properties.
‘They have a goal to expand the number of inns in the system anyway. At the same time, it’s the state. They don’t have a lot of money right now. Their bonding authority is tied up in golf course developments at various state parks,’ Epperson said.
‘I guess we are in a unique situation in that at least they have land and we are in a county that seems to have a long-term source of cash for investment and economic development. So why not look for some kind of partnership where the state and county can do it together?’ Epperson said, adding ‘It’s not an original idea.’
Local support for a lodge was given to Geneva State Park on Lake Erie in Ohio. The state provided the land while local residents provided the financing.
The next step, Epperson said, is proving that such a facility is needed and sustainable. CSO Architects of Indianapolis is in the second month of a feasibility study to determine just that.
In the meantime, the forest has lots of other recreational alternatives as Thorn can attest.
‘Wyandotte Caves is not only a recreation resource but a natural resource, a hybernaculum for the Indiana brown bat. We only run the large Wyandotte four months out of the year, and the other eight months, we don’t even go into the cave,’ Thorn said.
The state forest has three campgrounds. Class A Campground has 281 plots with asphalt pads, electricity, and shower and restroom facilities. Reservations are made through the Campground Reservation System maintained by Spherix of Maryland by calling 1-866-622-6746 or online at www.camp.in.gov.
The class B Horseman’s Campground has 68 sites with access to showers and modern restroom facilities but no electricity. And primitive camping is offered at Stagestop Campground.
Other stops in the state forest include the Leavenworth-Lang-Cole haypress, Pioneer Farmstead on holidays, group camp with dormitories, Nature Center, 80 miles of horse trails and 40 miles of hiking trails.

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