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Part 2: Private Sector Relating to Public Parks

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August 17, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of three stories about the relationships between the nation's state parks and private sector parks.

The ever-changing face of the nation’s financially pressed state parks took on a few new wrinkles this summer with the most dramatic changes in Florida, where controversy erupted over the state of Florida’s announced plans to expand camping into some of the state’s favorite parks, and Minnesota, where a startling budget crisis prompted the shutdown of state government and all of the Gopher State’s state-run parks for a time this summer.

And while states like Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado made some news as well, opening privately run campgrounds in state parks certainly turned out to be a hot-button issue in Florida. “Not a good idea,” said hundreds of indignant citizens.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Responding to the public outcry, Florida Gov. Rick Scott put the kibosh on plans to consider bringing concessionaire-operated, RV-friendly campgrounds to Honeymoon Island State Park and ordered further analysis of the state proposal overall.

The move encouraged many members of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Florida ARVC), which had lobbied the governor against the plan.

“I think it’s the right move,” said association Executive Director Bobby Cornwell. “Not to say it won’t happen, but it will go through a more stringent review process. We’re pleased with the additional review and the possibility it may not happen at all.”

“The mass of the people won this one,” Cornwell said, conceding that Florida ARVC was just one of many voices united in “unparalleled and unexpected opposition” to the plan. Hearings were held on plans at four state parks. Cornwell submitted verbal or written opposition at each one.

Florida ARVC's Bobby Cornwell

As for the future, Cornwell is uncertain how this summer’s bru-ha-ha will affect relations between his association and the state. “I don’t know how it will affect that relationship. I hope we still have an open relationship and work together when we can. Hopefully, it will be status quo and we can co-exist.”

The message, according to Cornwell, is that state parks “don’t need to expand too quickly where it could hurt the private sector. If they do (build campgrounds), they should make sure it’s more rustic in nature, primitive tent camping. That would be great because it gets more people camping and gradually moving up to RVs.”

Minnesota’s 74 State Parks Experience 20-Day Closure

Meanwhile, as anyone who reads a newspaper well knows, state parks  in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” were caught in the shutdown of Minnesota state government and closed  on July 1, remaining dark over the lucrative July 4 holiday and not reopening until July 22. The  unprecedented closure shuttered 74 state parks and recreation areas, along with 58 state forest  campgrounds and day-use areas.

The shutdown put a big dent on revenue and sent anxious campers to nearby states, especially Wisconsin which, as that state’s campground association executive Lori Severson emphasized in media reports, was “open for business!”

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) expected to lose $1 million during each week of the shutdown from lost camping fees, vehicle permits and firewood and merchandise sales. Campers also spend money in the towns around parks, and the agency projected a $12 million hit to the tourism economy each week.

“We’re delighted state government is back in business,” said Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the 200-member Minnesota Resort and Campground Association.

Minnesota's Dan McElroy

Some private parks prospered during the shutdown from added business, while others fared less well because travelers were afraid to come to the state. The rest area closures and the freeze on issuing fishing licenses had big impacts, noted McElroy, who joined the trade group at the start of this year.

Minnesota’s camping season is only 10 to 13 weeks, depending upon locale, so “ to lose a couple of weeks in a short season is not a good thing.”

McElroy’s trade group entered the fray early on, noting how a government shutdown would harm the state’s $11 billion annual tourism business and offering a temporary fishing license proposal so as to keep prospective fishermen coming to the state. The offer was not accepted at the state level.

But overall, McElroy, 63, who has a long career in Minnesota state government and public service, said his relationship with state park and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff is “excellent.”

“We get along well with the DNR and will continue to do so,” he told Woodall’s Campground Management. “We have exchanged e-mails about what we can do to help in the future (in case of other work stoppages or interruptions of service). We have no agreement, but we do have an agreement to talk about it.”

As for the future, Minnesota’s state parks took a 15% hit in their general fund budget through June 30, 2013. “They weren’t gutted,” noted McElroy, “but they will have a tighter budget.”

Other states have equally major concerns, though they haven’t garnered the amount of national media attention as the aforementioned states. Here’s a look at what we’re hearing.

Maine’s MECOA Keeps Open Line to the State

Maine's Rick Abare

The relationship between the Maine Campground Owners Association (MECOA) and the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) is very good at this time, says Rick Abare, MECOA executive director and president of the national Campground Association of Management Professionals (CAMP). He said he and state director Will Harris “have a true open line of communication.”

“MECOA added a member category which included public campgrounds a few years ago and the BPL joined the next year,” he noted. “I believe the most valuable part of the relationship is the marketing opportunities that MECOA’s Camping Guide and website bring to the BPL. Add those products to the camping shows MECOA attends on behalf of the industry and you can see that membership in MECOA is the best marketing buy BPL can make on behalf of the state park system.”

MECOA members, however, are still sensitive to pricing issues. “My observations are that there is room for increased pricing at the fee-based camping facilities operated by the state,” said Abare. “I say that because Maine offers ample free camping at a significant number of areas on Maine's Public Reserve Land, which is also maintained by the BPL. But in general I believe it would be difficult for any private organization to do the work the BPL does in Maine's day use parks and keep them open, i.e. available, to the public at a reasonable price.”

“Of course MECOA still has members who are not in favor of the direct competition from the state,” Abare said. “They complain that their own tax dollars go to subsidize state parks, which are their competition. But most of the private parks understand that our customer base is the same and, as long as the state parks stay mostly ‘rustic’ in nature and the private parks provide the extra amenities, we will keep working together to make the entire industry better for all.”

Abare met not too long ago with the state park commissioner and offered to form a corporation to lease and run the BPL camping properties for the state, should they decide to privatize. That offer remains on the table.

Pennsylvania’s Budget Hit Not as Severe as it Looks

Pennsylvania state parks and the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association (PCOA) “co-exist” on a cooperative basis, says PCOA executive director Beverly Gruber.

It hasn’t always been that way.

“Everybody thought state parks were our biggest enemy,” said Gruber, looking back in the early years of her 28-year career with PCOA. “Now, we don’t even get complaints like we used to.”

The 234-member PCOA seems to compete on an even keel with the state park’s 70-some campgrounds, Gruber said. “They undercut the privates (parks),” she added, “but they don’t offer hardly anything the privates offer.”

With 2.2 million acres of state forests, and 117 state parks covering 295,000 acres, there is a state park within 25 miles of nearly every Pennsylvanian, the state points out, and they serve as economic generators to the communities that surround them, with visitors spending about $928 million annually.

On June 30, Gov. Tom Corbett signed Pennsylvania's $27.15 billion "reality-based" budget that puts Pennsylvania on the "road to fiscal recovery."

At first glance, it appears that parks took a big hit. The amount from the General Fund is about $55.3 million, which is a decrease of about $27 million from the last fiscal year, said Terry Brady, deputy press secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

But overall the 2011-12 budget is about the same level as the 2010-11 fiscal year, totaling about $284 million from all sources of funds including general, federal and augmentations – not to mention the Oil and Gas Lease Fund. “There will be no reduction in staff, no parks will be closed, no new fees will be charged,” Brady stressed. “We’re pretty much functioning as is.”

Colorado’s State Parks Joining CCLOA in a Big Way

Nowhere is the relationship between the private and public sectors more positive than it  is in Colorado. State park officials sat down with leaders of the Colorado  Campground and Lodge Owners Association (CCLOA) in February to talk  about common interests, and before their talks were over, the state proposed its 33 parks become full voting members of CCLOA.

“We really have come to believe at the state association level we represent the industry best to the customer if we are working together rather than fighting over the people who are camping. We see this as a necessity,” said Mari Garland, CCLOA president and co-owner of Junction West RV Park in Junction City.

Negotiations were in the works this summer to bring that to fruition, and the only hang-up in the agreement among the 57 CCLOA members is that “there is some concern not wanting it to become a takeover and the needs of private parks become (remain) uppermost,” Garland noted.

The sense of cooperation should benefit marketing, as Garland envisions the two parties producing some 350,000 copies of their campground guide, up from CCLOA’s current 80,000-level. “That dramatically changes the value to an advertiser,” she stressed.

Colorado state parks are adequately funded, according to Garland, and have enacted several measures that make their camping rates competitive with the private campgrounds. Only in the area of senior discounts, where older campers in state parks can camp for as little as $15 a night, do they undercut the privates, Garland said.

TACO Maintains Good Relations with the State

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (left) with TACO's Brian Schaeffer

Texas state parks took a Texas-sized hit in the 2011 legislative session, with their budget cut from $210 million to $135 million. Curiously, the Hunting and Wildlife Budget slightly increased from $4.9 million to $5.5 million.

“In support of state parks specifically, however, some legislation recognized the need for continued state park financing even through severe budget cuts,” noted Ron Hinkle, lobbyist for the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO). “HB 1300 and HB 1301, respectively, provide new funding methodologies through corporate sponsorship and voluntary fees.”

HB 1300 provides ways to increase private contributions for state parks. Currently, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is limited in its authority to expand development of corporate partnerships and joint promotional campaigns, Hinkle said. Consequently, TPWD is unable to develop a financially beneficial partnership with a private for-profit company.

Both bills were passed by the Texas Legislature and were effective immediately.

“Consistent with the report's recommendations, HB 1300 amended provisions of the law to expand the scope of TPWD's fundraising and partnership development activities to include a private entity. HB 1301 provided that when a person registers or renews the registration of a motor vehicle under this chapter, the person may contribute $5 or more to the Parks and Wildlife Department.”

As for the connection with TACO, Brian Schaeffer, TACO’s executive director, says, “We have a wonderful working relationship. They list our contact info in their directory and take an ad in our directory. We support each other legislatively, including them getting additional funding in the 2009 legislative session.”

Still, Schaeffer says some more progress could be made.

“I think we could work closer in terms of promotion – especially on the Internet. There are certain restrictions on how parks and wildlife can spend money, i.e. lots of out-of-state promotion. Unfortunately, that is ineffective since most state park business is local/in-state. That is a legislative fix – I think.”

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