January 13, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho plans to cut Old Mission park funding

John Miller Associated Press
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Coeur d’Alene Tribe elder Felix Aripa walks up to the Cataldo Mission on Oct. 30, 2007 for a moment of reflection after the groundbreaking for a new visitors’ center and museum that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is helping to build at Old Mission State Park in Cataldo.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE — Idaho officials say a tight state budget will force them to end funding July 1 for the Old Mission State Park along U.S. Interstate 90, the site of the state’s oldest standing building.

Bob Meinen, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation director, said Tuesday he’s talking with the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, which owns the property that’s home to the 155-year-old Cataldo Mission, on alternatives to keep the park open.

Last year, the state spent just short of $300,000 to run the park, which includes a parish house and two cemeteries. Revenue was $42,000, mostly from people making day trips. About 98,000 people visited last year, up 5 percent from 2007.

Just three years ago, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne pushed expansion of Idaho’s state parks system through his $26.5 million “Experience Idaho” plan. With Idaho’s tax revenue set to fall 9.5 percent this year, Gov. Butch Otter aims to cut back the state’s general fund share of Parks and Recreation funding by $9 million, or 56 percent, starting July 1.

If Old Mission State Park were to close, it could reopen once Idaho’s budget picture improves, Meinen said.

The state has asked the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to help fund the park’s operations. “If they can’t, because of financial considerations, then we would mothball it and preserve it,” he said.

Coeur d’Alene tribal officials said a $3.8 million, 9,000-square-foot visitor center is nearing completion at the site between Coeur d’Alene and Kellogg, so news that state funding is due to be eliminated is especially disappointing.

Marc Stewart, spokesman for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said the tribe is “disappointed” in Otter’s decision.

“It’s really too bad that the budget crisis is going to affect this successful partnership between the tribe and the state co-managing the park,” he said. “The tribe has begun preliminary conversations with the parks folks to find out what options are available for the future of the park.”

Even with Otter’s proposed cuts, Meinen is optimistic he’ll be able to keep Idaho’s 29 other state parks open through such cost-cutting measures as scaling back restroom roof repairs and campground improvements.

The Cataldo Mission, which became a state park in 1975, was completed in 1853 by Catholic missionaries and members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Paddlewheel riverboats docked at the mission’s port on the Coeur d’Alene River to transport silver ore from nearby mines to a railhead downstream. Over the years, the mission has fallen into disrepair at least twice and needed significant renovations.

Local business leaders were taken off guard by the state’s plan.

Norma Douglas, coordinator of the Silver Valley Chamber of Commerce in nearby Kellogg, said Old Mission State Park lures people off Interstate 90 when they see its cream-colored, six-columned facade perched atop a grassy knoll. She said the building, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, entices visitors to stay longer in the region and spend money at local restaurants and hotels. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, first learned of the plan Tuesday from a reporter and hadn’t had time to scrutinize the details. Still, he said he hopes the park will stay open.

“My biggest concern is, we’re not jeopardizing the integrity of the structure by cutting off maintenance money,” Goedde said. “It’s part of the tourist economy. If you cut off a source of revenue for businesses, that may have an adverse effect.”

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.

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