South Carolina's Renowned State Park Director Retires
Blacksburg, SC – Aug. 2, 2018 -- South Carolina’s long-serving State Parks Director, Phil Gaines, retires today, leaving behind a legacy of progress and promise in an 85-year-old institution that protects and shares some of the state’s most significant resources. He is spending his final day performing the same park duties he handled as a young ranger in 1982 – cleaning bathrooms, weed eating and taking out the trash – at Kings Mountain State Park in Blacksburg.
“Phil is leaving the Park Service in much better shape than it was when he took over in 2005,” said Duane Parrish, Director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism. “His amazing feat is eclipsed only by the amazing person that he is. A person whose insight, intuition and passion left an incredible legacy, one that we will continue to build from.”
Gaines’ 37-year career is marked by a quick climb up the ranks into leadership and executive positions where he inspired some of the most sweeping changes in park management. He was part of the team of professionals in 1998 who laid the philosophical foundation that transformed state parks from custodial assets to natural and cultural destinations. When he became Assistant State Park Director in 2000, he was able to implement a lot of the plan’s strategic goals that focused more on stewardship and service. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Parks started hiring more historians and naturalists; amplified interpretive programming; prioritized historic research, preservation and environmental protection, and developed management plans that brought daily operations up to system-wide high standards.
The philosophical shift was “fundamental in its scope and reach,” Gaines said. “It changed how we looked, who we hired, how we managed, how we integrated with our communities, including with schools and local tourism.
“It has given us credibility with the pubic and with other agencies. It helped us develop a product that people want to be involved in,” he said.
When he became Director in 2005, State Parks were mandated to move closer to a self-sufficient enterprise, generating enough revenue to cover costs and operating efficiently enough to keep costs low. Under Gaines’ leadership, the Park Service upgraded its infrastructure system to meet public expectations for quality experiences, including improvements to roads, bridges, sewer systems and bathhouses. These improvements enhanced the visitor experience and encouraged repeat visitation.
Parks also developed more rentable facilities like camper cabins and picnic pads, and embraced a strategic marketing program that motivated consumers to visit parks. They also moved toward more dynamic pricing of their rental facilities, charging fees that reflected consumer demand. In that time period, Parks also received more than $3 million in corporate sponsorships.
In just 11 years under Gaines’ leadership, the Park Service went from a system that generated $18 million in revenue and covered about 73 percent of its expenses, to one that generated $27 million that paid for 95 percent of its operational costs, a 32.63 percent increase. Today, revenue generation in the Park Service is on pace to break its record – about 10 percent ahead. Additionally, many parks located in the state’s heartland, that struggled to operate in the black, began making enough money to cover their expenses, which lightened the system’s dependence on popular, but weather-vulnerable, state parks along the coast.
Gaines’ innovative and creative leadership also brought changes to the national landscape of managing parks. He helped establish a Leadership School for the National Association of State Park Directors to “develop the next generation of leaders,” he said, and has taught at the school every year for the past 11. He is Chairman of the School’s Board of Regents. He has also served on the NASPD executive board representing the Southeast and was named president of the Association of Southeast State Park Directors several times throughout his career. Gaines is a frequent speaker across the nation and in Canadian parks, sharing a message about the value of leadership and innovation that helps parks respond to new and shifting demands in the public they serve. In 2015, Gaines was given the Distinguished Service Award from the NASPD.
“I gave a lot of myself to state parks and this agency, but I’ve received so much more in return,” Gaines said. “I’ve met people who have changed my life and who have become lifelong friends. My hope is I left my mark and that the foundation is deep and strong, and that the next generation is ready to do some good stuff.”
Gaines began his career in May 1982 as a park technician at Kings Mountain State Park. One year later he became the first park “superintendent” of the new Lake Wateree State Park. In 1985, when master planning was underway for Dreher Island State Park in Prosperity, he became the superintendent there, overseeing the planning of the park’s popular villas and construction of a new bridge near the tackle shop. In 1989, just two weeks after Hurricane Hugo struck, Gaines was promoted to manager of Santee State Park and spent his first year involved in clean up. After six years at Santee, Gaines was promoted to an Operations Specialist in the Park Service’s central office in Columbia, where he worked with a team of park veterans and planners on the “Vision for the 21st Century.” In 2000, he was named Assistant Director and in 2005, he was promoted to Director.
“If I have any success, it is because of the park directors and park employees who served before and with me,” he said. “I’m just an old park ranger who got lucky.”
Gaines will continue to work with SCPRT on special projects, but will also return to his alma mater, Clemson University, as a professor of strategic leadership in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management School.