News & Events

Lean times ahead for NC parks and conservation

Aug 18, 2020

With tighter budgets ahead and a pandemic shutdown affecting operations and cutting revenue, planners at the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources are working on how to best maintain aquariums, parks and attractions and still move ahead with expansion and repair projects already in the pipeline.


Pandemic, revenue losses due to closures and budget stalemates leading to tough choices for officials trying to maintain NC state parks.

Jockeys Ridge State Park visitor center An improvements project at the Jockeys Ridge State Park visitor center is one of numerous projects funded by the Connect NC bond program. Mark Hibbs / Coastal Review Online


With tighter budgets ahead and a pandemic shutdown affecting operations and cutting revenue, planners at the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources are working on how to best maintain aquariums, parks and attractions and still move ahead with expansion and repair projects already in the pipeline.

The department’s budget office estimates that lost revenue for the first half of fiscal year 2021, which started July 1, to be $3.75 million for parks and $5.33 million for the state’s aquariums.

DNCR spokesperson Michele Walker cautioned that in the current environment, estimates are difficult to pin down.

“Keep in mind that this is only an estimate; there are a lot of unknowns in this equation so these numbers could end up looking different by the end of the year,” Walker said in an email exchange with Coastal Review Online.

So far, she said, both the parks and aquariums have been able to retain permanent full-time staff and some temporary staff have been hired on at busy parks.

Walker said the park system has played an important role during the pandemic: “State parks have been hugely popular and are providing a place of respite for NC residents during this time.”

But the state’s three aquariums are a different story. They’ve remained closed since March 17, when tighter, statewide stay-at-home orders took effect.

Walker said that’s meant a delay for a planned expansion at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and a shift of priorities for the aquarium staff from in-person activities inside to improving outdoor experiences and online programming, such as virtual day camps.

Inside, Walker said the priorities for the aquariums and Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head are to care for the aquariums’ creatures, continue assistance for stranded marine animals and maintain the tanks, exhibits and facilities for when the crowds return.

Leaning on bonds

The scope of future budget cuts is tied both to the course of the coronavirus pandemic and the extent of federal aid, but departments throughout state government are looking at priorities and how and where to find savings.

While it is delaying the Fort Fisher aquarium expansion, DNCR is one of several departments that will be able to keep some of its key projects funded and moving forward through the Connect NC bond program, a 10-year, $2 billion infrastructure funding program approved by the voters in 2016. This fall, the state will sell a $400 million tranche of bonds.

More than half of the Connect NC money is aimed at University of North Carolina system projects, with the rest distributed for state and local parks, the North Carolina Zoo, National Guard facilities, community colleges, state building repairs and water and sewer projects.

Legislation tied to the referendum sets aside 5% of the money for the zoo and the state parks system. Of the $100 million, it earmarks $25 million for the zoo and $75 million for 45 parks projects around the state.

Full article here