Pandemic surprises Michigan park directors with attendance surge

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Parks around the state experienced a tremendous attendance boost and reconnection during the dark days of COVID-19 pandemic but officials still had challenges attracting workers to handle the attention, parks experts said Monday. 

The hour-long parks discussion was held Monday at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Police Conference on Mackinac Island. It featured Dan Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources; Alicia Bradford, parks director for Wayne County; and Amy McMillan, director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.

Attendance at parks had been lagging. But since people were ordered to stay home in 2020, it created a domino effect for people to want to venture outside and flood parks, recreational centers and golf courses, according to the participants. State parks experienced a 30% increase in visitation last year with more than 35 million people. 

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon was among the state parks that experienced an attendance surge during 2020.

"Frankly at the beginning of the pandemic, we were concerned about whether we'd be able to be open," McMillan said. "And people just started coming out, and then they kept coming out over the course of the entire year."

Attendance at the Metroparks, McMillan said, was up 35%. "We had a goal of raising that decline by 1%," she said. "Every single boat rental, trail use, golf courses...just exploded."

Bradford said the attendance at Wayne County parks had been "moderate" prior to the pandemic, but exploded 25% to 30% with people people coming out daily to bike, run and walk.

"We saw saw the same thing, and we had challenges just the same," Bradford said. "We were just able to keep up with the amount of individuals that were coming out to the park. We worked with the ebb and flow."

Bradford said Wayne County was "prepared, but we just had to make some adjustments" to cope with people using the parks more given that everyone worked from home. Parks officials still maintained social distancing rules, she said.

State parks experienced a surge when COVID-19 hit Michigan in march 2020, Eichinger said.

"We were pretty quickly overwhelmed. That's a period of time before we bring on board our seasonal employees," he said. "We had relatively few folks that were working in our parks but we're seeing levels of attendance in our day use areas that would be equivalent to what we would see typically like in May or June."

Eichinger said the trend never abated at the Michigan's 103 state parks. Usually 26 million people visit the state parks in a given year but in 2020 but it jumped to 36 million.

"So we saw a tremendous increase in visitation," he said.

All of the park executives spoke of the challenges of finding workers when competing with fast-food chains that would pay several dollars more an hour.