In July 2016, after 14 years as superintendent of the Greenbrier River Trail, Jody Spencer was asked to take the helm of Watoga State Park – the very park where he served his college internship. K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

State of the Park ~ 2020 and beyond

For the uninitiated, the thought of managing a state park may conjure up visions of spending your days walking on woodland trails and talking to park visitors. The sort of thing that many people would call a “dream” job. And to a certain extent, this was true at one time. But in today’s world, you would most likely find yourself behind a desk looking at a computer screen.

You would not have to spend much time at that dream job before realizing that running a park is not that different from running a resort, but with far fewer resources and a much smaller budget.  

Successfully managing a large park today requires a whole new set of skills that were not necessary just a few decades ago.

Watoga State Park has 35 cabins, two campgrounds, 50 miles of trail, roads, bridges, work vehicles, water and sewage treatment plants, swimming pool, lake, recreation hall and a whole host of other buildings.

All of this infrastructure must be maintained while at the same time providing the visitor with a quality experience; one that makes them want to return over and over.

In addition to the ability to effectively manage employees, today’s park superintendent must have considerable business acumen. Most parks, particularly state parks, have a limited amount of money in their annual budget, and it must meet all of the infrastructure and labor needs discussed above.

In short, managing a park in this day and age requires a new breed of management.

Jody Spencer, Superintendent of Watoga State Park, represents that new breed of manager.

In a recent conversation with Jody he explained that, “Few parks are actually designed to be self-sufficient, in part because the facilities are spread out over much greater distances than that found at typical resorts. And, unlike large resorts, we have a limited number of lodging and camping sites.

“Some West Virginia parks have no means of generating revenue, so they must be supported by the other parks that do generate revenue,” he said.

Private resorts can afford to invest a good portion of their earnings back into their business. This is not so with West Virginia State Parks where earnings go into a state-wide fund that is then redistributed to all of the parks in the system, even the ones that do not generate revenue. Therein lies the challenge to the modern park superintendent.

In July 2016, after 14 years as superintendent of the Greenbrier River Trail, Jody was asked to take the helm of Watoga State Park – the very park where he had served his college internship.

During the years of overseeing the Greenbrier River Trail, his office was located in the administration building at Watoga. Jody said that this arrangement afforded him, “an insider’s view of Watoga State Park.”

Unlike the Greenbrier River Trail, Watoga has cabins and campgrounds that bring in visitors expecting certain amenities and standards. And like all modern park managers, Jody takes in-service classes on hospitality right along with the mandated law enforcement training.

Shortly after Jody became superintendent, an order went out to five state parks in West Virginia to close their swimming pools due to decreased use by park visitors and the resulting loss of revenue.

Watoga was one of those parks.

Jody remembers a time when the pool was packed every day of the summer. He remembers it well, because he had worked at the pool as a young man. The pool was a popular attraction at Watoga, and Jody knew that with some work it could be popular again, saying, “If you fix it, they will come.”

He appealed for and was granted a chance to draw those visitors back to Watoga. He asked for ideas from others, a hallmark of his management style, and one of the things that kept coming up was the legendary low temperature of the water.

Jody knew that this could be remedied with solar panels, so with some help from the Watoga State Park Foundation, an array of panels was purchased and installed. The water is now much warmer and far less appealing to polar bears.

Adding to the improvements was the addition of Wi-Fi, sliding boards and snacks. The park naturalist, Chris Bartley, ran special pool events, bringing young swimmers in by the busload, literally.

Revenue from the pool increased within the first season proving something that Jody shared with me during our discussion, “It’s all about figuring out what the public wants and balancing that with the needs of the park.

“I look at what makes the resorts that I take my family to successful,” said Jody. “People expect clean facilities; you don’t want to take a shower in a place that creeps you out.”

Over the last two years the shower houses at the Riverside Campground have been fully renovated, as well as major improvements made to the campsites. This year this same effort will be focused on the other side of the park at the Beaver Creek Campground.

A welcome infusion of money from oil and gas dollars was responsible for the remodeling of eight of the classic cabins. As well, 24 of the Legacy cabins are undergoing remodeling, including new heating/AC, and decks. All thanks to $3 million of bond money that found its way to the park.

An added benefit is the opportunity for local contractors to perform the work of renovating the cabins.

As the park continues to be improved, there is an increased number of paying visitors. More people are staying in the campgrounds and cabins and using the swimming pool. Plus, the new West Virginia State Park reservation system is making it much easier and more convenient for those wishing to make a reservation.

Gone are the bad old days when you had to send a postmarked application to the park.

Now you can make all camping and cabin reservations online with immediate confirmation. If you prefer calling, you may call the park call center or the park for reservations.

It was recently revealed that the swimming pool has not only been removed from the imminent closing list, but will receive the largest upgrade since its original construction.

“The swimming pool will be replaced with a new system within the next 18 months,” Jody said.

The swimming pool has deteriorated quite a bit since it was built by the CCC in the 1930s. It was recently examined by a state engineer who humorously commented that, “The only thing that we can re-use is the hole in the ground.”

Accordingly, the plans include an entire new pool structure with a maximum depth of five feet. Being considered is a “Zero-Depth Entry” such as that found at water parks. In other words, you enter the water on a gradual slope like you would at a beach.

This will provide a much safer entry to the pool, particularly for the young and those with physical limitations that would not allow a conventional ladder entry.

“We are always looking for ways to make people linger,” Jody said.

So he is looking into the installation of the popular splash pad for kids. A splash pad consists of a series of fountains arranged within a slightly concave textured concrete pad. Suffice it to say, youngsters love running around in a splash pad, confirming Jody’s assertion that with the right attractions people will linger.

Also slated for improvement are the 15 plus miles of road within the park. Watoga is on the 2020 list for resurfacing by the West Virginia Division of Highways.

Other projects on the horizon for Watoga include the Dark Sky designation. All outdoor lighting at Watoga will soon be fitted with proper shielding to attenuate artificial light as required for the designation. Further testing of the night sky will be conducted and plans are already underway for educational programs on astronomy for the public.

Plans are also underway to expand the popular disc golf course; which may result in a single 18- hole course or two 9-hole courses located in different areas within the park.

The long-awaited bike trail is still in the planning stage and we hope to get moving on its construction soon. This will be a family-friendly mountain bike trail that will be located adjacent to the Ann Bailey Trail. Historic stops along the way will be the Workman Settlement Area and the Ann Bailey Tower.

With Jody’s business-minded approach to managing Watoga State Park, we can expect continued improvements.

Jody represents the very best of this new breed of park manager. And for the folks here in Pocahontas County who cherish Watoga State Park, we can be assured it will continue to be the largest and best park in West Virginia.

Jody can often be seen driving around the park checking up on projects and talking with employees and visitors alike. And every once in a while he is known to head out on one of the trails. You can be sure that when he walks among the beauty of this park it reminds him of why he chose a career with the West Virginia Parks.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer
Ken49bon@gmail.com

Inco-Check