When Billy Paul Baker, Dinosaur Valley State Park’s longtime superintendent, died last year, he left behind some big boots to fill. Baker had walked in the footsteps of giants - the tracks of dinosaurs left behind in the Paluxy River’s limestone bed.
Now Shannon Blalock, the park’s newest superintendent, is following those footsteps, too - and following the lead of her mentor and friend.
“Billy Paul was so determined to make sure that his staff was prepared for anything,” Blalock said in a recent interview at her office. “He was the king of delegation.”
When Baker learned that he had cancer, he prepared his staff for the transition so that it would not be difficult. Still, his presence is greatly missed, Blalock said.
Now a new generation is succeeding Baker. Blalock, 28, is the mother of a two-year old daughter, Carly. She also is expecting another baby. A native of China Spring, Blalock graduated from Tarleton State University and hired on at the park, working her way up to become assistant park superintendent before Baker’s death.
“I had the privilege of working for four years for Billy Paul, who was the best manager and teacher that a person could hope to work for,” Blalock said.
She and her husband, Andy, who were high school sweethearts, live in one of the park residences. Blalock likes that her children will get to walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs, too.
Carly “roars like a T-Rex sometimes,” Blalock said. “It’s such an opportunity for your children and your family to grow up in this setting.”
This year has been memorable for several reasons. For one thing, the historic drought has dried up portions of the Paluxy, exposing tracks that in normal years are under water.
“It’s unbelievable the tracks that we’re seeing,” Blalock said.
Now is the perfect time to visit the park, especially with the cooler weather.
It's also a memorable year because of state budget cuts. They haven’t hit Dinosaur Valley State Park as hard as they have some other state parks, but money is tight and the park's resources are stretched thin. Thirteen staff members take care of the 1,600-acre park. The park’s exhibit boards are outdated, Blalock said. For example, they don't even note that the state dinosaur is now the Paluxysaurus jonesi.
But soon, there will be an "app" for that.
An Austin company, BarZ Adventures, is working with the park to develop a smart phone application that will allow people to visit the park - and Glen Rose - from just about anywhere.
"It has so much potential to do so much for Glen Rose," Blalock said. "This community is so supportive of the park. So we wondered what we could do for local businesses to get more people to them and vice versa. It's not just an app for the park, it's an app for Glen Rose.
"The benefits to us and educational resources provided to us are huge," Blalock added. "We've never had the staff to give every person a tour. Now every person who has an iPhone or Android will be able to use the app and be able to tour."
Dinosaur Valley ranks fifth in the state park system in the total number of school-age visitors. The park's long-term plan it to create specific tours that target elementary and junior high curricula. With the new app, students will able to take a field trip to Dinosaur Valley on their iPads.
The new app will launch on Oct. 1. It also will be available in Spanish.
"It's going to allow us to reach a much more diverse group of people and tell the story of the park," Blalock said.
Looking to the future, Blalock said the biggest priorities are to add a camping loop that would increase the park's number of campsites from the current 46 to 100 to 200 sites, add a day-use facility and bring exhibits up-to-date with current science.
"Right now we can't handle any more visitors than we have," Blalock said. "We don't have the facilities.We have to make decisions during busy holiday weekends. Last Easter we had to shut down for 30 minutes" because the park had reached its maximum visitor load.
Last year about 153,000 people visited the park. But the park infrastructure - parking, campsites, restrooms, roads - was designed to accommodate 75,000 visitors.
"We're at a crossroads," Blalock said. "We've either got to answer the call of the public and be able to accommodate those folks or accept it as what it is. That (the latter choice) is not the direction I want to go."
There's a foundation for that - the LDL Educational Resources Foundation, which donated the building that currently houses the park store and is a major park benefactor. The park also has a Friends of Dinosaur Valley group.
"That is going to be huge in getting some of these things done," Blalock said.
One of the things that Blalock wants to see done is to update the park's exhibits and exhibit boards, which date to the 1980s. Blalock's wish-list for the park includes interactive exhibits that would make use of the senses and things that kids could experience.
The app provides a "quick fix" for those issues.
"We'll be albe to replace information as it changes," Blalock said. "Science is ever-changing. It's fluid."
The app content also will be available on the Internet. All anyone needs to do is download the app and can take their family or class right there on a tour of Dinosaur Valley.
"There's much untapped potential out here and so many things that would increase the value of Dinosaur Valley State Park," Blalock said.