Efforts to save Hodges Gardens State Park from closure continue

Locations of signees of "Save Hodges Gardens" petiton, up through May 1, 2017
Locations of signees of “Save Hodges Gardens” petiton, up through May 1, 2017

To date, 2,758 people have added their names to a petition created by All Things Sabine which aims to show support for Hodges Gardens State Park.  Our goal is plain and simple:  to convince the State of Louisiana that Hodges Gardens is worth keeping open and that the State should fund the park as is needed to keep it open.

The petition is still active and interested persons are encouraged to add their names.  Remember, strength often comes from numbers, so the more signatures, the better.  To sign the petition, follow this link:

Keep Hodges Gardens State Park open

A bit of abbreviated backstory on Hodges Gardens State Park:  Hodges Gardens was created in the 1950s by area businessman A. J. Hodges (an oilman, if you will) and his wife, Nona Triggs Hodges (an all-around lover of nature and avid horticulturist), as a way of giving back to their community and of preserving almost 5,000 thousand acres of land, and to create a unique arboretum attraction.

Basically, and I think I am safe to say this, the Hodges’ were true conservationists before the dawning of the age of conservation.  They wanted this land protected, beautiful and available for the enjoyment of the public, and they clearly wanted this for their time and for the future long after they were gone.

The Hodges’ set up a legal Foundation under which the land would be operated and protected, even after their deaths.  I don’t really know much about the Foundation or how it works or any of the legalities of it, but as I understand, the Foundation members are descendants of the Hodges… children, grandchildren, etc.

Ten years ago, the Foundation entered into a cooperative agreement with the State of Louisiana whereby the State was granted use of the prime 770 acres of the 4,800-acre Hodges Gardens property.  By prime acreage, I am referring to the gardens themselves, the 225-acre man-made lake which is in the center of the property, the hiking trails, some of the equestrian trails, and the land used for cabins, camping, and RV sites.

Through this agreement, the State would operate this acreage as Hodges Gardens State Park and would maintain the grounds.

By the time this agreement was inked between the Hodges Foundation and the State, Hodges Gardens itself had become a bit of a wreck, in part due to storm and wind damage from two huge hurricanes which ascended this way from the Gulf (Rita in ’05 and Ike in ’07) and in part because of neglect of maintenance of the grounds.

When the State took over the park, hundreds of thousands of dollars were initially invested to bring the grounds back up to par.  Hodges Gardens did not reach the magnificence of its prime times, in the 1960s and 70s, but I think it’s fair to say that most people realized that it would be difficult to ever achieve what the Hodges’ had again without some miraculous and tremendous source of funding.

What Hodges Gardens did become under the State, however, was a very nice park different from other state parks in that it was an arboretum featuring flora of all kinds.  It had unique beauty, features and a unique feel and appeal to the public… locals and visitors alike.

Eventually, the State repaired deteriorated roads inside the park, maintained the grounds nicely, fixed up the cabins, added some cabins, added railings for safety around the rock features, removed an old group cabin which had fallen into disrepair and added in its place a new $300,000 “state-of-the-art” (if you will) group cabin at which groups of individuals can stay for various purposes (youth organizations, church groups, wedding groups, private parties, etc).  In all, the State invested millions into Hodges Gardens over the past 10 years.

Supplementing the State’s investment, a private non-profit group named “Friends of Hodges Gardens” has through the years collected donations to fund various projects at Hodges.  These projects included but were hardly limited to funding needed for improvements themselves, such as repairs on water fountains and other water features thereby going a long way in making the park beautiful and unique… not to mention the single best place to take portrait photographs in Sabine Parish and beyond (I have on occasion met photographers from Lake Charles, Vernon Parish, DeSoto Parish, Sabine County, and Newton County, even as far as Orange, Texas to the south and Longview, Texas to the north who chose Hodges as a setting for their portrait photographs including dance groups, high school senior pictures, and bridal photographs). Furthermore, Friends of Hodges has secured much needed volunteer help, from volunteers offering a hodge podge of miscellaneous services such as planting and weeding and general beautification to volunteers who are professionals in various fields like irrigation, plumbing and construction.

The jeopardy of Hodges Gardens today is two-fold.

First, the State of Louisiana is suffering a budget deficit and for whatever reasons, several parks are being considered dispensable by the State in the midst of these financial strains.  Hodges Gardens is one of these parks.

Second, the property of Hodges Gardens remains under private ownership… as explained, the Hodges Foundation owns the land and the State operates it as a park.  Complicating things for Hodges Gardens at this time is that the Hodges Foundation earlier this year initiated a process of apparently attempting to reclaim the property, or rather kicking the State out (that is the best way I can describe it) and attempting to take back full rights to the property.  The Foundation’s legal argument behind their quest to take the property back is that it is their contention that the State is in breach of its contract with the Foundation in that Hodges Gardens is not sufficently funded by the State, meaning it is their belief that the State does not intend to fully fund the needed maintenance to keep the park in the condition in which the State received the Gardens’ property.

That contention by the Foundation, however, is disputed not so much by the State, which has remained a bit mum on the legalities surrounding the Gardens, but by members of Friends of Hodges Gardens as well as at least one legal expert, Sabine District Attorney Don Burkett.  In a recent public forum regarding Hodges Gardens, Burkett expressed his conviction that the State was in fact not out of compliance with the contract between it and the Hodges Foundation.  Burkett explained that he was not speaking in any official capacity, but rather as a supporter of Hodges Gardens offering his legal opinion.

“I read the contract and it is my considered opinion that we are not in default,” Burkett said.  “I don’t care what they say, we are not in default.  Now if they appropriate no money and things start going south real fast after July 1, yes, maybe we’ll be in default at some point.  But as we sit here today, we are not in default.”

Also, Friends of Hodges’ President Chris Nolen asserted that the Gardens’ property has been and continues to be in better condition now than it was when the agreement between the State and the Foundation was reached.  That particular condition, under which the State accepted the Gardens 10 years ago, seems to be a critical point of the agreement between the Foundation and the State.

So let’s say that the property is in equal or better condition now than it was in 2007 when the State took over the Gardens… (and I very much believe it is in at the very minimum slightly better condition now than it was 10 years ago), then the State is in fact holding up to its end of the agreement.

However, and this is paramount to Hodges’ future, the State must allocate funding needed to maintain the Hodges Gardens for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1.  State legislators are currently in Legislative Session and this is where our petition comes in.

The petition, for us, was just another means to show State officials that there is public support for Hodges Gardens.  There have been letter-writing campaigns, a well-attended public meeting, and other efforts to convince the State to allocate funding for Hodges and ultimately save the Gardens.  Our petition is just another means of trying to show support for Hodges Gardens.

The way I see it, if the State doesn’t fund Hodges, then the property does go back to the Hodges Foundation.  Unless the Hodges Foundation intends on operating the property as a park, and there is absolutely no indication that they do or do not plan on this, this could spell the end for Hodges Gardens forever.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent the results of our petition to area State Legislators as well as to the Office of Governor John Bel Edwards and the Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser (bearing in mind that all State Parks are operated under the Office of the Lieutenant Governor). At that time, the petition had a few more than 2,500 electronic signatures.

I explained to the State officials to whom I forwarded the petition results  that All Things Sabine is a not-for-profit three-year-old Facebook community and website which posts photos and stories and videos of all sorts related to our geographic area along the Sabine River and beyond.
I further explained that I had observed through All Things Sabine a huge amount of interest on Hodges Gardens State Park particularly related to strong desires that the State fund the park this coming fiscal year in order to keep it open and operating as a public park
“Because of this, and because of my own passion for Hodges Gardens,” I wrote, “My husband and I created a petition to gather signatures of some supporters of Hodges Gardens who want Hodges to remain open for us all to continue to enjoy.  The petition has been posted for a little less than three weeks now.”

My letter to legislators and the Governor and Lt. Governor stated, in part, “This petition is but just one single effort… grass roots through and through… and by no means is a complete or exhaustive show of support for Hodges Gardens.  I believe this petition shows a wide variety of support for Hodges, but doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the support that exists for this gem of a park in West Central Louisiana.

“The petition remains posted, and as I write this new signatures are still being added each day.”

Gov. Edwards responded to this in a very brief statement, stating that correspondence related to State Parks should be directed to the Office of the Lt. Governor.

Lt. Governor Nungesser responded with the following letter, explaining where his office currently stands on Hodges Gardens:

“Thank you for taking time to write to me regarding Hodges Garden State Park.  First and foremost, I want you to know that we are looking at all of our options to keep this valuable asset in the state park system open.  It has never been my intent to defund or close this facility; however; on March 12, 2017, my office was served a letter from the Hodges Gardens Foundation requesting that the property be given back to its original owners.
“My legal team is currently working with the Commissioner of Administration as well as the Attorney General’s Office to review all options.
“Because of the years of maintenance that has been deferred and the current budget situation, it may be an uphill battle.  In addition, I am currently looking for an outside donor(s) to possibly raise enough money to fund some of the deferred maintenance and repairs from the past few years.
“If we were able to raise a substantial amount of money as an initial amount to start that process, we may have a leg to stand on.  We are looking at all options and I am always open to any recommendations that anyone may have to help with this matter.

“The Office of State Parks is looking at a potential $6 Million cut, which would be devastating to not only Hodges Gardens but to other state parks across our state.  It’s an additional cut that we cannot sustain. The Lieutenant Governor’s budget has been cut 50% over the last 10 years and we continue to struggle with deferred maintenance in many locations.

“I realize the beauty and importance of this facility and the hard work that the volunteer organization has put into this facility over the last 10 years.  Rest assure, I will make every effort that I can and look at all options before I turn this facility back over to the foundation as they have requested.”

This is all of the information I have at this time.  Based on what the Lt. Governor said, the situation certainly looks worrisome for Hodges Gardens, but not yet of a entirely dooming nature in that he offered possible solutions to the problem involving corporate investment into Hodges Gardens.  I certainly believe there are corporations, groups, even individuals who would be interested in contributing to saving Hodges Gardens and interested in the personal satisfaction and/or positive exposure they would receive from such noble investments (not to mention tax incentives, I suppose).  Maybe this can happen.

Of course, the State and the Foundation would have to be committed to keeping Hodges Gardens open.  Otherwise, there would be understandable hesitation from anyone to financially invest in Hodges Gardens if there is any real fear that the park could still close even after an influx of outside investment.

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2 thoughts on “Efforts to save Hodges Gardens State Park from closure continue”

  1. An excellent summary of where we stand All Things Sabine. Your efforts are greatly appreciated and helpful in keeping the Gardens in the public eye. So true that without assurance of continued state funding donors are unlikely to commit financial support.

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