ALBANY — Robert Maher remembers back in the 1970s when 300 or more buses filled the parking lots at Rockland Lake State Park, bringing thousands of New York City residents to enjoy the park's two huge swimming pools on scorching summer days.
Rockland Lake, just 30 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, was among the most popular of New York's state-run parks, drawing about 2 million visitors a year in its heyday, Maher said. Attendance last year was 610,000. Maher said much of the blame lies with the state for allowing the pools to deteriorate to the point where one is closed and the other "is basically being held together by duct tape."
"People don't like to go to a place that looks like it's about to fall down," said Maher, 48, the president of Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, Inc., a local state parks support organization.
Things are about to change for Rockland Lake, one in a string of state parks along the Hudson River's west bank in Rockland County. The $132 billion state budget approved by the Legislature late last month includes $89 million in New York Works capital projects for the state-run system of 178 parks and 35 historic sites.
The funding breakdown released earlier this month includes:
The other $12.7 million is being split between more than two dozen other parks and historic sites from Westchester County to the St. Lawrence River for projects ranging from road paving to ball field improvements.
It's a much-needed infusion of money for a sprawling, aging system that has seen its overall funding slashed by more than 20 percent in recent years. But parks advocates caution that it falls far short of the estimated $1 billion capital projects backlog the state parks agency has cited.
"We're ecstatic," said Robin Dropkin, executive director of the Albany-based advocacy group Parks and Trails New York. "Obviously, this isn't going to make everything perfect and hunky-dory, but it's a good down payment."
"Revitalizing our parks and historic sites is a sound investment in the economy," said state parks Commissioner Rose Harvey. "It will help tourism thrive, create jobs, and make New York communities more attractive places to live."
Harvey said 57 million people visit the state's parks every year.
Niagara Falls State Park, created in 1885, overlooks the American side of the falls. Sections have deteriorated over the decades, and state parks officials were stung last year when the conditions prompted a New York Times travel writer to describe the Niagara Falls park as being "shabby" and "underfinanced."
A major part of the work planned for the park involves improving or replacing aging restrooms, sewer systems and other infrastructure such as roads and bridges. However, the millions being spent on such projects represent "a drop in the bucket" when compared to the daunting list of work that that needs to be done at many parks, Maher and other advocates said.
Just two years ago, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation was considering closing dozens of parks and historic site amid New York's budget crisis. Operating hours, staff and services at some parks and sites already had been curtailed, and even deeper cuts were pending before the Legislature agreed to allocate the $11 million needed by Memorial Day in 2010 so the properties could open for the summer season.
Dropkin said the threatened closure of so many parks and historic sites in 2010 had a silver lining in that it brought attention to the dire condition of so many properties and how much New Yorkers love their parks.
"It really made everybody sit up and notice how important they are to New York," she said.