As KSMU reported last month, Missouri's state parks saw an overall six percent increase in attendance in 2014 compared to the previous year. In fact, Bennett Spring State Park, 12 miles west of Lebanon, saw an increase of 15%, to nearly 786,000 visitors last year. Now, on the cold, rainy Wednesday last week when I visited the park, you wouldn't have known it... as I walked down toward the Hatchery Outfall No.001, I saw three--count 'em, three--faithful anglers fly-fishing for the park's famous trout.
However, in the Park Store, longtime concessionaire and store manager Jim Rogers assured me that wasn't the case a few days earlier when the weather was nicer. "Yesterday this place was happing! And Monday we were swamped. The weekend was phenomenal."
And that has been the case at a large number of Missouri's parks and historical monuments, says Bill Bryan, Director of the Missouri Division of State Parks. He tells KSMU that Missouri state parks "recorded a record number of visitors last year of about 18.5 million visits. That means that every weekend in the summer, at 87 parks and historic sites around the states, we were pretty busy. That's a lot of people making a lot of trips to the parks."
Bryan says the State Parks Division maintains good data on the campers and visitors to each park, and where they travel from to come there. Bennett Spring, for example, saw visitors from "all over the Midwest," especially Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. And those out-of-state visitors are very important economically to Missouri. While Missouri state parks don't charge admission, the people who visit them definitely spend money here. "It's good for our economy to bring those dollars into the state," says Bryan.
In the Bennett Springs Park Store that rainy afternoon I spoke to a group of shoppers who were from both nearby and out-of-state. Christopher Smith was visiting the park from Branch, Missouri--"just up the road," he says (actually located west of Camdenton). He comes to Bennett Springs to fly-fish a couple of times a year, and this time brought with him some "friends" from Oklahoma... he introduced them to me as his wife's "nieces" but they quickly corrected him: "Cousins!" Smith has long appreciated Bennett Spring's "family atmosphere... I love it. It's just a good, old-timey, great place."
One Missouri city that specifically prospers as a result of Bennett Spring's success is Lebanon, population approximately 15,000, located 12 miles east of the state park. City Administrator Chris Heard--himself an avid fly fisherman--is quick to point out that Lebanon has a thriving economy of its own, thanks to a variety of local industrial plants, such as Copeland, Lebanon's largest employer. They manufacture scroll compressors for HVAC units. Also, says Chris Heard, "we have multiple boat manufacturers and all the ancillary manufacturing of equipment to that. And then we have the largest cooperage in the world, Independent Stave, making wooden barrels. They've been been 100 years in the same location."
Because Lebanon has what Chris Heard calls a "very large commute radius," the city attracts a lot of commuting workers from outside the city limits. "Our daytime population probably swells to close to 25,000 to 30,000."
Heard likes to acknowledge the city planners and business leaders of Lebanon who came before, and laid a strong foundation of business and manufacturing in the city. But he also freely admits that the close proximity of a major trout-fishing state park has helped tremendously. "I don't know that (Lebanon) would be the crossroads that it is today," says Heard, "because you've got (Highways) 5, 32 and 64 basically all paralleling at the exact same time. So that's three state routes. Well, where do you think they were headed? They were headed to the state park. And so I think that core, what we call an 'anchor,' really allowed all the other stuff to prosper" in Lebanon.
Bennett Spring is the fourth largest spring in Missouri, with a daily flow of one hundred million gallons, and has provided hunting and fishing opportunities for hundreds of years both to Native Americans and to the settlers who came in the mid-19th century. By the early 20th century recreation was becoming increasingly important, and in 1900 the Missouri Fish Commissioner introduced 40,000 mountain trout into the spring. About 25 years later the state of Missouri purchased the spring to create one of the first state parks, which today provides numerous opportunities not just for trout fishing, but for camping, swimming, hiking, and just plain appreciation of nature.
There are numerous intangibles tied up in all those activities that bring new people into the park every year, as well as developing lifelong fans who come back year after year. In short, it creates memories, says Lebanon City Administrator Chris Heard. "I don't think there's a place that you can go in the state of Missouri that you mention Lebanon, Missouri and they don't say, 'Oh, Bennett Spring!' and then follow that with a fishing story from some family member coming down and enjoying the park."
Division of State Parks Director Bill Bryan counts himself among that group. His parents took him to both Roaring River and Bennett Spring State Parks as a young boy, and he says, "I've got great memories. I can remember catching my first trout on a fly at Bennett Spring... I remember going to Bennett Spring every August with my Boy Scout troop. I think that a lot of our visitors hvae had those same kind of experiences, and they're very powerful and they call you back."