Parks funding

At Sandy Point State Park, Gov. Martin O'Malley announces a proposed investment of $22 million for improvements in state parks and public lands. In background is Lt. Col. Christopher C. Bushman, Deputy Superintendent of the Maryland Park Service. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / January 13, 2012)

Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to spend nearly $23 million to improve Maryland's often-maligned state parks, proposing widespread renovations for a system that critics say has been deteriorating for more than a decade.

The money would go toward highly visible projects at some of the state's most visited public spaces. Among other improvements, it would renovate shabby bathhouses at Assateague State Park near Ocean City, repair the lighthouse complex and parking lots at Point Lookout in Southern Maryland, and replace a fishing pier at North Point State Park that was severely damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

The governor made his announcement Friday at wind-swept Sandy Point State Park along the Chesapeake Bay, where $4.2 million of the new spending would renovate boat ramps, install solar panels on park buildings, improve stormwater management and create a "natural playground."

"For the last many years, we have been under-investing in the infrastructure that is our state parks," O'Malley said, with the Bay Bridge in the background. The new money, he said, would help to upgrade play areas, curb runoff of pollutants and improve trails across the state.

"Tourism is an important part of our economy," he said. "No one else is going to make these capital investments for us."

The money will be included in the capital budget proposal O'Malley submits to the General Assembly, which has the final say. The proposal would largely be funded by increased state borrowing.

The improvement plan was lauded by parks enthusiasts and blasted by critics who say the Democratic governor is spending too much money.

Kristin Saunders Evans, an assistant secretary at the Department of Natural Resources, called the $23 million figure "huge."

"It's about fourfold what we usually would see," she said.

Tim Casey, president of the Friends of Maryland State Forests and Parks, said the infusion would go a long way toward cutting into a backlog of maintenance projects.

"It's really a very good chunk out of it," he said. "This is really quite a positive step for the parks."

But a leading Republican criticized the increased debt that would pay for the work.

"He's taking from the capacity of the next generation to pay for his pet projects today," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County. "Unfortunately, it's very close to generational theft."

He said issuing more bonds would put added pressure on the state to raise its property tax, which is dedicated to debt service.

O'Malley argued the investment is worth it, saying the parks projects would create 300 jobs. His proposal is in keeping with his stated intention to accelerate capital projects to spur employment as Maryland is struggling to recover jobs lost in the economic downturn.

Maryland state parks attract 11 million visitors a year and generate $650 million in economic activity, O'Malley said. He predicted each $1 spent on the parks would produce a return of $25.

"These are dollars that are leveraged," he said.

The allocation would be a small part of Maryland's total capital budget of roughly $1 billion, but advocates said it was an important investment for a parks system that has been operated on a shoestring.

The spending boost is a delayed response to a 2007 report that identified a "state of crisis" in the state park system because of a mounting maintenance backlog after spending fell to less than $1 million a year early in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He restored some funding later in his term.