Georgia Hustles to Save Its State Park System

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March 29, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Will the fall syrup-making celebration at a state historic site now be brought to you by Aunt Jemima? Or a waterfall in a state park be supported by Coke?

Such partnerships could be possible as Georgia’s state parks division scrambles to keep parks open and educational programs thriving, according to the Macon Telegraph.

Leaders at the Department of Natural Resources have had almost a year to come up with creative ways to save money or increase revenue since the parks budget was cut by almost 40%. Additional minor cuts are expected in fiscal 2011, but not on the scale that required last year’s layoffs and reduced park hours, Commissioner Chris Clark said.

Among the state’s new strategies, Clark said, are:

  • Corporate sponsorships of park programs or features.
  • Creating a nonprofit agency to apply for educational grants to be used at parks.
  • Adding new camp sites and cottages at popular parks.
  • Better marketing and access to state-run properties such as fish hatcheries and wildlife management areas.

With Georgia’s sales-tax collections plummeting, the parks budget was cut from $27.4 million to $16.8 million last year, which caused some parks or historic sites to close for portions of each week. About 90 field staff positions were eliminated.

DNR had considered completely closing parks.

Clark said DNR reduced its budget by 3% this year as instructed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, but that proposal doesn’t include changing park hours or operations. Instead, Clark said he recommended further reducing park repairs and improvements.

Clark said Perdue recommended that the division start funding its $158 million in needed capital improvements through a rolling bond program like other state agencies, with $17 million tentatively slated for the fiscal 2011 bond package.

A little more than half what the parks need to operate is earned through parking and camping fees, but the rest have historically been provided through the state budget.

Clark said if cottage and camping capacity could be expanded at parks where the state now has to turn away potential customers on the weekends, the revenue could help the division become more self-sufficient.

“We’ve shown a business case at the General Assembly that if we can add some of those, we can offset the losses at some of our other parks,” he said.

Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy, said this will also build support for parks. “The more we can connect the people of our state with our parks, the better,” he said. “If people don’t know a thing, they can’t love it.”

Andy Fleming, executive director of Friends of Georgia State Parks, said he thought members would support “tastefully done development” to increase park revenue. “I don’t see any interest from the DNR in doing things so commercially oriented that we’d have something like Stone Mountain,” he said.

The parks division is also seeking to diversify the types of overnight accommodations it offers. For example, “yurts” have become popular at some north Georgia parks. Yurts are generally single-room, small, round buildings with beds, providing an experience somewhere between a tent and a cottage. Last year, they were added at High Falls State Park to test whether that product could be popular in Middle and south Georgia, Clark said. Clark also hopes to add camping at parks that don’t have any. For example, he said river camping would probably be popular at Sprewell Bluff State Outdoor Recreation Area, which was a state park until last year’s budget cuts.

Help from the private sector

State parks could start seeking donations from private companies and individuals.

Georgia recently issued a request for proposals, seeking consultants to develop a strategic plan for corporate sponsorships of parks. Clark said the initial focus would be on sponsorships for events and programs. This has already been tried on a limited basis, as when Coca-Cola and Verizon sponsored free park days statewide last year. He said a second possibility would be having signs that indicate a particular trail or feature is “supported by” a contributing company.

“We are not going to rename state parks or allow big billboards,” he said. “We’re not interested in the commercialization of Georgia parks. We’re interested in keeping them open.”

Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring said corporate event sponsorship might be all right, but he is troubled by sponsorship of property that belongs to the people of Georgia.

“The idea of making parks and historic sites into advertising venues is just really repellent,” he said. “They’re supposed to be a refuge from all that.”

But other parks supporters see potential in the new revenue stream.

“Having corporate sponsors involved in communicating the value of the outdoors and nature to the broader public, with their larger resources, could be a good thing,” Fleming said.

“Some people think it’s crass to name a park for a company, but I think that’s fine, because you’re not cutting trees to pay the light bill,” Howard said. “The main thing is for the state park system to remain intact.”

Both parks and the Environmental Protection Division, which enforces environmental regulations, are under the umbrella of the DNR. That creates the possibility that a park sponsor could also be policed by officials in the same department.

“We have a firewall that separates EPD from everything else, and I think we’ve done a very good job of managing those expectations,” Clark said. “But we’ve got to be sure we don’t enter into an agreement with a company that might in any way jeopardize or call into question the integrity of the organization or lessen the public’s trust.”

The department is also supporting a bill in the state House that would allow DNR to create a nonprofit, which could apply for education grants to support parks. “Every Southeast state’s fish and wildlife agency has one except ours,” Clark said.

Herring said accepting corporate and other private donations create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, because DNR has regulatory and police duties.

He said the initial proposal for the nonprofit included no limits on what it could do. The House bill that would create it has been amended to prevent the nonprofit from owning land, but Herring still feels it “has the potential to be a portable Jekyll Island Authority.”

Better marketing, expanded access

The parks division has created a task force to evaluate how its sites are marketed and branded.

Clark said most Georgians probably don’t know what activities are available at fish hatcheries — some of which have trails and archery ranges — and wildlife management areas, which are open to hunting but also biking, bird watching and other activities outside hunting season.

Eventually, this could lead to more access. For example, WMAs generally don’t have parking lots and their access roads are often hard to find. Clark said the state might experiment with changing that.

Howard praised these efforts but also said the state should add a passive user fee to increase revenue for parks and WMAs. Hunters already pay a fee to hunt WMAs.

“There are more bird watchers, butterfly people and other passive users than hunters, and they should help shoulder the burden,” Howard said.

Clark said the parks division is also planning a complete overhaul of its retail operations.

Parks now operate their own sales centers independently, with products ranging from bait to camping supplies to T-shirts.

Clark said he wants to add a staffer with a retail background to study what sells best, expand product offerings and do centralized buying for better bulk prices.

Golf course operations

Last year, the senate directed the parks division to seek self-sufficiency for its lodges and golf courses.

“We made some pretty drastic changes in our golf course operations,” Clark said. “We’ve really been able to make them close to breaking even.”

He said the division shaved $1.5 million from the cost of operating the courses by eliminating staff, increasing fees and reducing maintenance.

He said the number of golf course users hasn’t dropped, and he hasn’t heard complaints.

“What we’ve got to do is compare those savings with what private operations can do,” Clark said.

The state issued a request for proposals, seeking companies that might want to manage all the golf courses as a group, but there were no qualified takers, he said. The state has re-issued the request.

If it isn’t fruitful, then the state will seek companies interested in managing individual courses. Four golf courses, including Little Ocmulgee State Park near McRae, are already managed by outside agreements with individual operators.

“We’ve been happy with the Little Ocmulgee agreement,” Clark said. “That could be a model.”

But even with more revenue and lower expenses, Clark said the parks division will still rely heavily on volunteers to maintain basic park functions.

“In many state parks, the folks cleaning the bathrooms are our volunteers,” he said.

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