State unveils beach park upgrades

DOVER — This tourist season, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and the state’s tourism office (Visit Delaware) have been celebrating several recent developments on the downstate beaches.

On May 16, the grand opening of Big Chill Beach Club, a full-service restaurant and bar built atop the Delaware Seashore State Park’s existing bathhouse, was announced along with 50 new Visit Delaware branded beach umbrellas that will be available for rent to beachgoers. Big Chill Beach Club is expected to open on June 2.

A few days later on May 22, Gov. John Carney and DNREC announced a battery of improvements at Cape Henlopen State Park including campground renovations and new amenities at the park’s Seaside Nature Center and Fort Miles Historical Area.

Delaware Seashore State Park

The Big Chill Beach Club, to be operated by La Vida Hospitality Group, represents one of the largest public private partnerships and capital investments in state parks history – more than $1 million, according to DNREC.

State Parks employee Rick Davis dumps sand from the boardwalk in front of the Big Chill Beach Club at Indian River South. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“By increasing the park’s visibility and providing new services and conveniences, DNREC’s Delaware State Parks, the Delaware Tourism Office and La Vida Hospitality Group are helping to ensure visitors to the beaches keep returning year after year,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin. “Delaware’s state park beaches are world-class and the partnerships we’re celebrating will help beachgoers experience the extraordinary beauty to be discovered at Delaware Seashore State Park.”

The La Vida Hospitality Group also owns other beach restaurants such as Fork & Flask at Nage and Crooked Hammock Brewery and they provide the food for Lefty’s Alleys and Eats.

A worker puts in colored light bulbs at the Big Chill Beach Club at Indian River South near Bethany Beach. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We are so excited to be opening and providing a new layer of fun to the experience of coming to Delaware Seashore State Park,” said Josh Grapski, managing partner at La Vida. “This unique venue with its incredible views will be a wonderful amenity for the park.”

The Big Chill Beach Club will feature 360-degree views of the Ocean, Indian River Inlet and Indian River Bay from its rooftop deck. It has a large, beach-themed “umbrella room,” fire pit, game area, restaurant and the “Big Chill Surf Cantina,” a full service bar. The cantina has an outdoor patio and stage that will host music and sports during the beach season.

The 50 new branded beach umbrellas for rent being added to the park are another facet of Visit Delaware’s “Endless Discoveries” tourism campaign. Each umbrella has Visit Delaware’s logo and website stamped on it as well as the Delaware State Parks’ logo.

Cape Henlopen State Park

Much of the new renovations at Cape Henlopen State Park are designed to improve the camping experience the park has to offer. DNREC said many of the changes were in direct response to requests made repeatedly by campers over the past few years.

Some of the park’s wide roads have now been narrowed to accommodate campsites with paved pads which are now available for 20-, 40- and 50-foot RVs. The new roads are designed to increase the amount of “environmentally-friendly pervious surfaces.”

More than 100 RV sites now have electrical and water connections, including the first 100 amp electrical service in any state park, DNREC said. Some pull-through sites were added for larger RVs as well. Every campsite now includes a picnic table and fire ring, all on a concrete pad and a new trail connects the campsites, enabling safer bicycle and pedestrian access.

A new camp store in the center of the campground includes expanded laundry and camper washing accommodations. The store will also supply campers with many other camping essentials as well as snacks and morning coffee. A new playground between the bathhouse and camp store was also added.

The new campground playground at Cape Henlopen State Park near Lewes. (Photo by April Abel)

Tent campers will now have access to 20 walk-in sites adjacent to the Walking Dunes Trail. The walk-in campsite area is a first for the park, already popular at Lums, Killens and Trap Pond state parks, said DNREC.

The recent renovations also included a few changes to the Seaside Nature Center, the most visited nature center in any of the state’s parks, according to DNREC. A wall that previously separated the retail and exhibit space was removed to open the area.

The centerpiece is a new, 495-gallon, two-level “touch tank with viewing windows. The windows allow visitors to watch sting rays, horseshoe crabs and other species in the tank while they’re underwater.

lThe newly renovated Nature Center at Cape Henlopen State Park. (Photo by April Abel)

The touch tank” and will serve as an educational tool for school groups, scouts, teachers and families. The aquarium hallway has new lightboxes with updated information about species and habitats.

An improved exhibit for the Friends of Cape Henlopen’s Osprey Cam was also installed along with new flooring a lighting throughout.

Fort Miles will also soon showcase a new 90 millimeter gun which is being restored by the Fort Miles Historical Association’s “Bunker Busters.”

The gun was the model used at Fort Miles near the end of World War II in 1944 and was used for top-secret research projects, DNREC said.  This gun adds to the Fort Miles Museum and Historical Area’s new artillery park.

Funding for the renovations and new amenities came from the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, state bond bill funds, state parks fees and donations from the Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park and the Fort Miles Historical Association.

“Cape Henlopen is the place for campers and visitors to be this summer,” said Mr. Garvin. “The improvements to the campground, the Seaside Nature Center and Fort Miles all serve to make the unique experience of visiting Cape Henlopen State Park better than ever. This would not have been possible without the partnership of the National Park Service, our state legislators and our parks visitors.”

Tourism boon

Visit Delaware believes with the new improvements in both parks they’ll be able to better leverage the state’s assets in their tourism campaign.

“The beaches are an extremely valuable tourism asset for Delaware,” said Linda Parkowski, Delaware Tourism Director. “Upgrades to beach state parks, from Big Chill and its sweeping views to Cape Henlopen’s RV and camping improvements, both of which add new layers of experiences for travelers, will absolutely help the attract visitors to Delaware.”

Ms. Parkowski pointed out that the state tourism office’s “Endless Discoveries” campaign was recognized by FutureBrand, an international brand consulting firm, late last year.

“The small state of Delaware makes a big impact on domestic tourists, according to our research,” Chris Nurko, Global Chairman of FutureBrand, said last year. “Of those surveyed, 52 percent were more interested in visiting Delaware after seeing the state’s marketing – a score that outranks almost every other state in the study.”

According to the research, only Idaho’s campaign drew more attention with 53 percent of people surveyed more interested after seeing the state’s marketing.

The consulting firm noted that much of the success was likely attributable to the campaigns focus on Delaware’s beaches, saying that the attention to beach/water imagery was “clearly the right move,” and the branding increased potential travelers’ association of the state with “key drivers of visitation: the beach, adventure and outdoor activity.”

Taking a page from these results, Visit Delaware just released a new travel guide on May 10. They’re also running a new commercial in target markets.

“Our goal since the roll out of the Endless Discoveries campaign has been to make people stop and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s in Delaware,” said Ms. Parkowski. “We know the new travel guide will do that – along with TV, online and print advertising that is also new this year. The informational and inspirational content will help visitors put together better trips and take in more of what Delaware has to offer.”

Each time the Delaware Tourism Office has published a new guide demand has increased, according to Visit Delaware. The most recent version of the guide ended up requiring a reprint. Visit Delaware first printed 150,000 copies then did a reprint of 200,000. Between 2014 and 2017, the office distributed 328,000 guides to locations in and out of Delaware.

Parkowski expects the new guide, which vendors on the state marketing contract helped create, to perform even better. The tourism office’s initial printing this time is 500,000 copies.

Copies of the new guide will be available for free at travel plazas and welcome centers along the I-95 corridor, airports in Philadelphia and Baltimore and consumer tradeshows. Residents and visitors can also order a free copy at visitdelaware.com/travel-guide.

State spending amid budget concerns

“Delaware’s beaches and state parks help attract millions of visitors to our state, are key drivers of our $3.1 billion tourism industry and improve the quality of life for all Delawareans,” said Gov. Carney. “Investments in our outdoor areas help us continue to position Delaware as a leading vacation destination, attract even more visitors to our great state and strengthen our economy.”

According to the Tourism Office, Delaware hit a record in 2015 (the latest data available) with 8.5 million visitors which added an estimated $486 million in tax revenue. Tourism is the state’s fourth largest private employment industry with approximately 42,000 jobs.

For more information about tourism, visit visitDelaware.com. To learn more about state parks, visit DEStateParks.com. To learn more about Big Chill Beach Club, visit BigChillBeachClub.com.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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