• Charlene Sims, Journal staff

Linn County Park: "Gem" or drain on tax dollars?

Updated: Sep 20

A sign at the entrance to the Linn County Park denotes the park's rustic appeal to visitors. (Photos by Roger Sims, Linn County Journal)

A request to fill an employee position at Linn County Park during a Linn County Commission meeting on Sept. 20 quickly became a discussion about the park’s contribution to the county and the future of the park.

Linn County Public Works Director Shaun West, who supervises park employees, was grilled by the commissioners about why the park was losing money. West was park manager under former public works director Jackie Messer before being selected to take Messer’s job in June.

West had asked for a full-time position to be filled that had become vacant when he took the public works position. Two full-time employees presently run the park and marina. The commission reluctantly approved advertising for a part-time employee.

Linn County Commissioner Danny McCullough said that he thought the park was a gem for Linn County, and that marketing just needed to be stepped up to make it a moneymaker.

He suggested putting the cabins on Airbnb or Vrbo websites to broaden the marketing.

Linn County Commission Chair Rick James threw out several suggestion to stop what he called the drain on the county tax dollars. Closing the park for the winter months or subletting the marina were two of the suggestions he made.

However, the park does not belong to Linn County. It is leased to them through a contract with Kansas City Power and Light Co., now Evergy. They leased the 1,100 acres to the county in the late 1970s with the intent to create the park.

That contract expired early this year, according to Gary Thompson, county counselor, and has not yet been renewed, although he believes the company intends to renew it.

He said the company’s attorneys are likely considering what the future of the La Cygne power plant will be and how the land will figure into the company’s plan to start moving away from coal-fired generator.

Creating a recreational opportunity out of the trees

Bruce Holt, who was the park manager for nearly 40 years, was hired in 1978 to develop and run the park. The county received a grant of $900,000 from the National Park Service for land and water conservation, said Holt.

He said the county had three years to use the grant money. Roads, the bathhouse, camping areas, boat ramps and docks, and the swimming pool were built. The cabins were built later.

Holt said that there were no plans for the park when he was hired, so he had to develop them. To make the road, Holt first tried to walk through the woods to mark them out but found it too difficult and instead rode a horse and tied ribbons along the paths he made.

After he had the paths marked, the county road crew, supervised by his father, Herschel Holt, came in and bulldozed the trees and built the roads.

Holt said that the commissioners asked three things of him when he was hired: To keep the park clean, keep the “riff-raff” out, and keep it from being a financial burden on Linn County.

In the early years of the park, of the 100 camping sites, it was usually the 30 sites that were rented to boilermakers and ironworkers who worked at the power plant for several months. Those rentals accounted for about half of the revenue for the park.

A self-serve kiosk for park permits stands outside the marina. A former park manager, Bruce Holt says that person-to-person contact with campers would promote a more friendly atmosphere and generate more income at the park.

Holt said at that time there was not a two-week limit on how long a person could use a campsite. In the 1990s, Holt said, the park always made $20,000 to $40,000 above the costs of operation.

Holt said that they did have people that lived there permanently but that their rent paid for their utilities and space.

Holt said that he had patrolled the park frequently and that he would personally collect the fees for staying there when they were due. He is concerned that the method for collecting camping fees now in a metal box misses a lot of people who stay there.

Since he left, the trash barrels have been removed and dumpsters put in. Holt said that the park staff involved in emptying the trashcans every three days added a personal touch. That person could go out and visit with the campers and see what their concerns were and also make sure that rules were being followed,

When asked about events that had been held there in the past, Holt said that the park had had local blue grass festivals, BMW rallies and many others. He said he thought that large concerts would require a lot of law enforcement.

He said that yearly attendance at the park had been usually 80,000 to 90,000 people per year.

According to Holt, the park has always had three full-time employees but also had a lot of additional volunteer help. Crews of the former Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, Green Thumb workers, prisoners from Miami County, and people who had to work off community service requirements were part of the park’s workforce. And the Linn County road crew maintained the roads.

A popular lake for year-round fishing

There is no doubt that the Linn County Park Lake is a major attraction for Linn County, not for just a few days out of the year but all year long, according to Don George, a Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) fisheries biologist. George manages fish in area lakes.

George said that he receives phone calls from people from all around the Midwest about the fishing at the lake. The lake is a favorite for winter fishing because the power plant’s cooling system draws in cool water and pumps warm water back into the pool.

That keeps the fish active and the fishermen and fisherwomen coming to a large lake that doesn’t freeze over easily. Bow hunters also fish at the lake fish for rough fish and gun carp, he said.

In an article he wrote for Kansas Wildlife and Parks Magazine, George said that most serious bass anglers know that the La Cygne Reservoir is the queen of big bass in Kansas.

He says that the reason for this big bass reputation is based on some very simple components: proper size forage, good shoreline and mid-depth habitat, warm water, and good Florida largemouth bass genetics.

“KDWPT did not stock largemouth bass in the reservoir until 1979,” he wrote. “At that time, testing and the tracking of genetics was unheard of, but it was believed that a Florida strain of the species was stocked.”

The La Cygne Generating Station operated by Evergy uses the lake waters to cool its coal-fired generators. But it also warms the water to create ideal fishing conditions year round.

George said that 27,500 fish were stocked then, and in 2019 when bass were collected and genetics tests were performed, the largemouth bass population still contained about 27 percent Florida strain genes.

In June 2020, 26,500 fingerling-size, pure strain Florida largemouth bass were once again stocked there. With their warm-water-loving genetics, they may potentially become future giants in this already spectacular population, he said.

In its July/August 2018 issue, Bassmaster magazine ranked the La Cygne Lake as one of the national top-10 lakes of the central division. They said that this was hands down the best lake in Kansas.

“Electrofishing samples last year turned up 11 bass larger than 20 inches per hour – 17 times the number of 20-inch bass samples in the next best lake in the state,” the article said.

George said that it was amazing to have any of Kansas’ lakes ranked that high in a national magazine.

Employees believe park has plenty of untapped potential

Linn County Park Manager Sherry Loveland also said that people came from everywhere to fish or stay at the lake. She said a lot of people came from Nebraska, Missouri, and many other states.

She said that archery deer hunters came from as far as Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas every year. Deer hunting passes are given to a certain number of Linn County residents and non-Linn County residents annually.

Loveland said that camping sites with sewers were full and that people were on a waiting list for those. There is a place for RVs and campers without hookups to dump wastewater.

Other amenities offered to campers include a sprinkler park for kids, horse trails, shower house and laundry facilities, and the marina store, which carries groceries, fishing supplies, live bait, fishing and hunting licenses, and big game tags.

The seven cabins available for rent at the lake were closed a portion of last year. That gave officials time to install new siding.

The park has seven cabins for rent, and those wanting to stay in a cabin must bring their own linens.

During COVID-19 shutdown last year, the marina and cabins were closed for several months and lost income. But that provided the opportunity to apply new exterior siding to the cabins. The county also purchased linens for the cabins in case they were needed to isolate people who were asked to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the lake remained open for fishing the whole year.

Loveland is looking into advertising on Airbnb and Vrbo. Other ideas for activities include horseshoes, a basketball court, cornhole tournaments, and Frisbee golf.

Loveland believed that some of the expenses came from electric bills. She said that people who were living there permanently used electricity to heat and cool and this is paid for through the park's electric bill. Another option might be putting separate meters on those residences.

Public Works Director West said he thought one of the problems with the park is that there was nothing for children to do. The swimming pool that once sat on the hill south of the marina was removed several years ago because of extensive leaks.

West thinks that it is a different group of people that come there now than in the past. While there is a lot of fishing, there is nothing for family members that do not want to fish. The county is adding Wifi to the cabins soon, but that may not be enough to keep family members entertained all day long.

West thinks it is important to keep out people who live there long-term because, he said, “nobody wants to camp where somebody else lives.”

Following the money

At the Sept. 20 meeting, Linn County Clerk David Lamb did point out to the commissioners that the park was one of the only departments in the county that brought in money.

Park records for 2021 show that, through August, the park has received receipts of nearly $184,000 and had expenses of $190,346. Those figures – and the ones below – do not include employee salaries or benefits.

In 2014, receipts for the park were nearly $301,000, expenditures were close to $272,000. In 2015, receipts were more than $263,000, expenditures almost $260,000. And in 2016, receipts were close to $264,00 with expenditures of $247,000.

Contractual expenses were high in 2021 because the KCAMP insurance for the park had doubled to $4,484 up from the previous years of 2014-2016. The insurance cost less than $2,000 in each of those earlier years

The largest moneymaker for the park is permits for camping and user fees. For the first eight months of this year, the total revenue from those fees was $131,000. The average for the years of 2014-2016 was just at $212,000.

The marina sales, using 2014-2016 reports, are usually highest from March through October and brought in an average of $27,800 annually. So far in 2021, the marina has made $17,868.

In the years 2014-2016, the cabin rentals brought in an average of $34,400 annually. For the first eight months of 2021, the cabin rentals have made $34,640. That puts them on track to make more than in the past.

Drawing visitors from home and out of state

In addition to the out-of-state visitors that use the park for fishing, hunting, and camping, many Linn County residents hold family and organization events there in the shelter houses and campsites.

Linn County families often take several recreational vehicles there to spend family time together. As pointed out previously, there are few activities for older children and adolescents after the swimming pool was removed.

Because of the undertow created by the power plant’s cooling system, swimming in the lake is a problem. However, West said he has looked at the possibility of sectioning off an area for swimming depending on what the contract with Evergy allows.

The other drawback for families, particularly those with older children, is that water skiing and jet skis are not permitted on the lake. But that is a plus for one group of park users – those who fish at the lake.

Linn County Park had the same problems as many businesses after the COVID-19 pandemic began. The park closed for several months in 2020 and has been building up its attendance again in 2021.

But many people familiar with the lake think it has significant untapped potential as a recreational draw and moneymaker for Linn County. And they believe that investing in and developing the lake will pay dividends in the future.

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