Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Have You Done Enough?

This weekend's excursion was to Rock Island State Park. Three of us went and we decided to make a full weekend of it and camped at the main campground. The camping facilities were adequate, the staff was friendly, and the park offered some great scenic views. Because I of what I do, I no longer simply go and enjoy an outing like this: I analyze it. Each of us kept making little comments over the weekend about the little things that the park could do to improve their operation. Jen kept making comments like, "$20 would fix that problem." Most of what needed tweaking wouldn't require massive infrastructure changes or costs, but it would require an overhaul in state park management/staff philosophy.

Our car-side campsite featuring my new tent and our much tended campfire.

Before I get into the things that I would change to make this place more visitor friendly, let's talk about the aspects that I truly loved. The staff members that I interacted with were both knowledgeable and friendly. When we checked in, the woman at the desk asked us how many tents we had and recommended that we take a particular campsite because it was better for tent camping, and she was absolutely correct. When we were making our first attempts at making a campfire (once we got it going, we lovingly tended that thing until we left...a process I am now calling the saga of the campfire), a seasonal ranger stopped by and handed us a flier about weekend activities. He was friendly, approachable, and was able to answer other questions that we had about the park. Maintenance personnel were by every day to pick up our trash and they always said hello. Each person officially associated with the park seemed genuinely interested in quality customer service and seemed to love their job.

Not only was the staff attentive, but the buzzards took a keen interest in our campsite as well.

The hiking trails introduced us to much of the scenic natural beauty of the area. The different trails took us through woods that had a wide variety of wildflowers or out to the limestone river beds. The treks down to the river usually had you passing by one of many waterfalls that just seemed to be everywhere. It was lovely.

Megan and Jen winding their way to a small waterfall.

But here is where I start to get a bit nitpicky. The trails that led down to different spots on the river all desperately needed maintenance. We saw a similar deterioration at Fall Creek Falls State Park where a rock slide covered a section of the main trail (so much so that it took us a while to figure out exactly where the trail started again). Let me take back what I said earlier about cost...fixing those trails would take a chunk of money and labor to repair. And while the long forest trail seemed well maintained, it didn't make a lot of sense. The parking spot to start the hike seemed sort of accidental and then the path just meandered pointlessly through the woods. Perhaps a guided tour would have helped, but what about the occassional interpretive kiosk to say where we were, what we were seeing, put in a little bit of history. Greenways do this, so why not this park? We ended up coming out the other end without understanding why someone had chosen that path for us.

Footbridge that led from the historic cotton mill.

Some of the points of interest that other people remembered from years past were no longer available to us. One of those was the foot bridge that led from the historic cotton mill to the other side of the river. This park doubles as a TVA facility, which makes for an interesting setting as well. If there is water recreation involved in a site in Tennessee, then TVA is going to be there in some shape or fashion. So, in the middle of Rock Island State Park is the Great Falls Dam. While many TVA facilities used to be open for tours, in our post 9/11 world, many of them have limited public access. This site offers problems to that situation, though, because it is in the middle of a state park. The bridge from the cotton mill is closed and there are signs telling visitors that the TVA structures are not open to the public. There were some disturbing signs all over the riverbeds (that were littered with tourists) saying that you needed to leave immediately when the alarm sounded because the water level could change drastically.

View from just under the Great Falls outlook.

In general, I am in favor of not having people play around dams and water generation facilities (in the name of safety). But the large groupings of power lines often intersected hikes and the impact of TVA was ever present...but there were no attempts at telling that story on the landscape. And that seems to be a wasted opportunity. And that got me to thinking about something Dr. Spencer Crew said in our May-mester class. When evaluating sites of conscience, he would ask us if they were doing enough. And that is quickly becoming the standard by which I judge heritage tourism sites. With the natural and historic resources on this landscape, I wish that they were doing more to leverage those assets and create a more educational and dynamic visitor experience. There's only so much those helpful staff members can do and then the site needs to do some of the work on its own. Currently this park needs a more solid interpretive foundation to make the efforts of the staff more effective.

I'm a huge nut for signage and while there were several signs welcoming you to the park, but once you were inside the park, none of the signs faced the other direction. That meant that we did a lot of turning around in order to find things once we were there. That was one of the situations where just a little bit of money and a bit of foresight would make a huge improvement: print labels on both sides of the signs. Also, it was basically required for you to drive around the site. The hiking trails were scenic, but they were self contained. The roadways did not have room for pedestrian traffic and it was even a bit treacherous for car traffic in some areas. It seemed a bit silly to be so automobile dependent on a camping and hiking trip.

One of my favorite signs for the park, though, is one that I did not take a picture of (for some curious reason), and it was a large iron fence that looked like it belonged at the entrance to a western ranch. It proudly stated that you were entering "Rock Island." In addition to being the location of a state park, Rock Island is also a town. It was picturesque and had the types of shopping that campers needed. But more importantly, it had one of the smallest and cutest depots that I have ever seen. And it looked like someone was living in it!

Rock Island Depot.

And yet, even the town had a lot of untapped potential. Are any of these places doing enough? No, I think that they are coasting upon what they have. TVA has shifted its focus over the years and recreation is not one of its main missions anymore. But in terms of being an effective business, they have the opportunity to engage customers at sites like this and they are passing up that chance. The state parks are strapped for cash, but in the case of this particular park, they seem to have employees that have a strong emotional investment in their workplace (not always the case in my experience of Tennessee state parks). But without a solid intepretive foundation on the landscape, those employees are limited in what they can accomplish. And while the town has an impressive sign to welcome visitors, maybe their visitor outreach could move beyond the corner gas station (and contextualize that business by integrating it with the community which supports it).

I want them all to do more and be more thoughtful in how they approach shaping the landscape and serving their audience.

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