By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY Attendance at New York's 214 parks and historic sites dipped slightly this spring and summer compared to 2012, attributable mainly to long stretches of rain around Memorial Day.
Park attendance fell 1 percent between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend this year, a drop from about 34 million visitors to 33.7 million visitors, according to the state parks department.
"Attendance got off to a slow start with a cool and rainy May and June, but the weather rebounded," said state Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey. "We were pleased to again serve tens of millions of visitors at our parks and historic sites this summer."
Harvey said visits to the parks are far from over, saying, "Autumn is a great time to be outside in New York and we look forward to welcoming more visitors in the coming months."
The state has invested nearly $180 million in capital improvements to the parks over the past two years as a way to cut into an estimated $1 billion in needed upgrades. The investment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo comes after years of cuts and the potential closure of parks due to state budget woes.
Cuomo's office has also promoted New York parks in tourism ads, hoping to draw New York City residents and visitors to upstate. Park attendance jumped from 57.2 million in 2011 to 60 million in 2012.
This year, though, a rainy spring coupled with stretches of extremely hot weather in early summer hurt attendance. Also, some parks downstate were still recovering from heavy damage due to Superstorm Sandy, which hit last fall.
"If it weren't for the weather, people would be certainly out using the parks more," said Laura DiBetta, director of government relations for Parks & Trails New York, a non-profit group.
As a result, park revenue was down 2.4 percent, falling from about $47.3 million to $46.1 million over the past two summers.
The Palisades region, mainly the lower Hudson Valley, had the biggest drop in attendance over the summer season, down 26 percent, state records showed. The major falloff was at its largest park, the Bear Mountain State Park, where attendance apparently dropped 40 percent, from nearly 1 million visitors in 2012 to 586,000 visitors this summer.
James Hall, executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, said he's not sure the attendance figures are accurate. He said the parks have seen a 5 percent to 10 percent decline in visitors this year, but he thinks there may be something wrong with the numbers from Bear Mountain.
"Something about it doesn't ring true to me," Hall said.
Hall said that some parks were hurt because of Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. For example, the Lake Sebago Beach at Harriman State Park hasn't reopened because of the storms.
Attendance was up 6 percent this summer at the Taconic region parks, which are in the upper Hudson Valley.
The increase was fueled largely by a 33 percent increase at the Walkway Over the Hudson, the pedestrian bridge that spans 1.28 miles between Poughkeepsie and Highland, Ulster County.
The walkway had 237,000 visitors over the summer, up from 179,000 during the same period in 2012, according to the parks department.
The walkway expects to draw more visitors: It's connecting to nearby rail trails this fall and adding a 21-story elevator, supporters said.
"We have a large regular group of users from the immediate area," said Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart, executive director for the walkway's non-profit group.
"And those folks have found the walkway to be a wonderful spot for keeping physically fit, having safe outdoor experiences with their children, and we all who live here bring our guests and visitors to the walkway."
New York's 127-year-old park system is the oldest in the nation, with 179 state parks and 35 historic sites. Earlier this year, the state banned smoking around playground and pools and created smoke-free areas.
Attendance dropped 3.6 percent in the Rochester area, but the region's largest park, Letchworth, had about the same number of visitors as last year, roughly 354,000.
Attendance at Finger Lakes state parks fell 8 percent this year, in part because of a 22 percent drop at Taughannock Falls - which has waterfalls, campsites and a beach near Ithaca at the southern end of Cayuga Lake.
It still had the second highest attendance in the region. The first was Watkins Glen State Park, which had 462,000 visitors this summer, up 5 percent this year.
The parks in the Finger Lakes are one of the main draws for tourists, said Cynthia Kimble, president at the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance in Penn Yan, Yates County.
"The parks are an extremely important element of the tourism product that we have to offer here in the Finger Lakes region," Kimble said. "The outdoor availability to many of the tourists coming into town, with the ability to bike, hike and walk in the state parks is just an incredible feature we have here."