Charlie Hoots, executive director of the new nonprofit organization, Mississippi State Parks Foundation, frequently enjoys local outdoor activities with his camper (pictured) in tow. Because of his use of state parks, he was familiar with the need for improvement and enhancements to facilities and became involved in raising funds for upgrades. (Courtesy Marie Hoots)
A Southaven alderman with a heart for the outdoors took the lead at a new nonprofit this year to see Mississippi state parks improved after years of funding neglect.
Charlie Hoots, 64, who represents Ward 2 of the DeSoto County city, became executive director of the Mississippi State Parks Foundation in January. His job is primarily fundraising for projects that would improve and enhance state park facilities.
Already, he’s seeing progress.
The foundation, with supporters such as state Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, won a “sizeable increase” in funding from the Legislature this year for the Department of Mississippi Wildlife,
Fisheries and Parks. The foundation is a nonprofit and works with Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks but is a separate entity.
“We can just fund things because they need to be done,” Hoots said. “Avoid the red tape.”
The Mississippi Legislature appropriated more than $95.4 million for the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks for fiscal year 2023, approximately a 7.51% increase from fiscal year 2022. The fiscal year began July 1.
Officials say the pandemic brought to light the popularity and potential in the state parks. COVID-19 shutdowns nudged people into outdoor activities in many locales.
DeSoto County does not have a state park, but it has federally funded Hernando Point, which Hoots hopes will become a state park, and Sardis Lake, a quick drive south. Wall Doxey State Park is in nearby Marshall County.
The financial impact of state parks is about $50 million annually. Taken as a whole, wildlife activities are the third- largest revenue driver in Mississippi, an $8 billion industry, Kinkade said.
“COVID showed us people wanted to get out,” Kinkade said. “People will recreate on that level if given the opportunity.”
Hoots, his wife and their 16-year-old daughter hook up a camper and go to a state park every few weeks.
Several months ago, Hoots’ love of the outdoors sparked a remark at a meeting of the Mississippi Municipal League in Biloxi. He commented on the condition of state parks.
Jennifer Head, a longtime public servant who had just founded the foundation, recognized a passion in Hoots and asked him to become the lead of the new nonprofit.
“We camp a lot, so I noticed right off what bad shape they’re in,” Hoots said.
“Some of my fondest memories growing up were camping,” he said, “We had a pop-up camper. We drank Mountain Dew. We didn’t get that many sweet things.”
Mississippi has the potential to not only serve outdoor lovers but to enhance the economic impact that campers bring to the state, Hoots said.
“I think that’s what we’re selling,” he said, reflecting on his childhood. “We’re selling memories.”
Hoots, a former Memphis television cameraman, works on a volunteer basis. To be effective, he brainstorms ways to entice people to donate money to the foundation, all the while navigating state regulations.
Civil Link, LLC, an engineering firm in Southaven, and Murphy and Sons, a general contractor, became a founding sponsors with a $20,000 donation, Hoots said. He’s now reaching out to potential mega-donors.
The state parks are in need of love because they have been inadequately funded for too many years, Hoots said.
“We’ve had 10 years of neglect,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want to see our state parks be the best they can be.”
Kinkade became chairman of the House Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee in 2018. His first task was to evaluate the department’s situation.
He asked for a PEER (Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review). It took 18 months.
One of its findings was that the department had been underfunded by almost $70 million over several years. On the heels of the report, the pandemic struck.
Now that the worst of the pandemic appears to have passed, new leadership and insight are giving officials an educated pathway toward rebuilding the state’s parks, Kinkade said.
“It gave me a roadmap,” Kinkade said of the report. “A lot of people wanted to do the right thing, but they didn’t have anyone driving the ship.”
The infusion of state funding has already kicked off electrical upgrades, boat ramp and pavilion repairs, and camping pad restorations.
He hopes the improvements and amenity enhancements will put Mississippi state parks in line with parks funding by other nearby states.
Hoots will work with “friends of” park organizations on their priority projects, which can be as simple as planting flowers at guard shacks.
“Those are the kinds of things people notice,” he said.
With Kinkade’s help, the foundation won back resident managers or “camp hosts,” to live at campgrounds rent-free while helping clean up bathrooms and answer visitor questions.
“Charlie’s been a great asset,” Kinkade said. “We’ve come a long way. There’s a long way to go, but I’m really proud to be part of that process.”
Toni Lepeska is a freelance reporter for The Daily Memphian. The 32-year
veteran of newspaper journalism covers a diversity of topics, always seeking to
reveal the human story behind the news. Toni, who grew up in Cayce,
Mississippi, is a graduate of the University of Mississippi. To learn more,