Tourism department comments on Wister lights

By Regina Smith Managing EditorOn Wednesday the Poteau Chamber of Commerce issued a press release regarding the Christmas light display at Wister lake State Park. The press release stated that park officials had informed organizers that the staff would no longer help put up the display or help in any manner that might require manpower from any park employee. On Thursday the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department responded to what tourism officials felt were allegations made towards them by the Poteau Chamber.  “The Christmas lights at Lake Wister State Park are viewed by 6,000 visitors every year.  However, at a time when OTRD has endured 22 percent budget cuts, the Division of State Parks has been forced to cut expenses that are not essential to its core mission,” said Deby Snodgrass, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. “In 2011, the park had 245,019 visitors. Its budget was $643,989 while revenue was only $175,541; that represents a loss of almost half a million dollars.  Our new park manager, Deb Reininger, is working hard to improve self-sufficiency.  For that reason, we have left two full-time positions vacant and are utilizing seasonal workers that will not be employed by the park when labor is needed to work on Christmas light displays,” Snodgrass continued.  “The full-time employees utilize the off-season to work on maintenance and repair of the park.” The press release said that the department had contacted the chamber more than a year ago to let officials know that park employees wouldn’t be able to be involved with the display after 2011. “When we were contacted by the Poteau Chamber last year, we explained the agency’s budgetary constraints.  In a spirit of goodwill, we agreed to work with them on the light displays, but gave them advanced notice that 2011 would be the last year that park staff would be able to assist them,” Snodgrass noted.  She said that the Tourism Department and the Division of State Parks understand the lights are important to the people of LeFlore County for economic, social and cultural reasons.  “If the Poteau and Wister communities can find volunteers to set up the displays and maintain them during the holiday season, we are more than willing to allow them to utilize the park property and provide the group that’s installing the lights a park contact for guidance in answering questions pertaining to electrical and breakers to help ensure everyone’s safety,” said Snodgrass.  “We simply don’t have the funds to pay for new lights, replacement bulbs, electricity or labor.  We are hopeful the chamber will be able to cover the labor needed with volunteers and the expenses with donations from local businesses and those who visit the light displays during the holiday season.”The OTRD was reportedly bombarded with calls from concerned citizens regarding the light display after the story broke. The office was taken off guard because they claim to have discussed the matter with organizers before the 2011 display. The display began in 2003 to help bring visitors to the park during the winter months when the usage of the park is low and draw people into the area to share in the Christmas season.“The park has been the ideal place for the display that has been drawing people from the surrounding states,” said Karen Wages, executive director of the Poteau Chamber, in the press release issued earlier this week. Wages said the chamber hopes to continue the tradition by having volunteers to help set up the lights. Those interested in helping work on the display should contact the Poteau Chamber of Commerce at 918-647-9178.