Private Sector/State Parks in New Era of Togetherness
Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of three stories highlighting the relationships between private campground associations and state parks.
The lines between publicly owned and privately owned parks and campgrounds became further blurred this year, as some elements in both segments of the outdoor hospitality arena laid the groundwork to improve relations.
What was once an adversarial, even acrimonious relationship in many states is becoming more pleasant, even harmonious in some cases – although that’s clearly not the case across the board.
Indeed, Jeff Sims, director of membership for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), attended the annual convention of the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) in Custer, S.D., last week where he reached out to state park directors across the country and highlighted the association’s efforts to seek improved collaboration with the public park sector to help both segments in these challenging economic times.
In light of all this, the third and final segment of Woodall’s Campground Management’s study takes an in-depth look at the sometimes precarious status of public parks – and how they relate to private parks in a number of states:
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MARYLAND: The spirit of cooperation between public and private parks is strong in Maryland, from all we can tell.
“The relationship between MAC (Maryland Association of Campgrounds) and Maryland State Parks is exceptional,” says Deb Carter, MAC executive director. “We have been cooperating groups for many, many years. Since I've been actively involved with MAC (1995), I have worked with several superintendents, all exceptional people that I'm proud to call professional and personal friends.”
Carter, a campground owner herself, sits on the Governor's Park Advisory Commission, a group charged with proposing new or enhanced management and implementation strategies that improve and promote the Maryland State Park System.
Those duties, she says, have been “very beneficial to our symbiotic relationship; we learn and benefit from each other.”
“State Parks understands the plight of the private campground owner, and have their rates for camping set as high if not higher than most other states,” she noted. “We discuss any plans they have for expansion and how it might affect private campgrounds.”
Overall, “we couldn't ask for better cooperation,” she said, adding that MAC and Maryland State Parks trade out publicity and ads. “I can't imagine what problems would exist that we couldn't deal with,” she said.
VIRGINIA: Across the Potomac in Virginia, the Virginia Campground Association (VCA) and Virginia’s state parks “are trying hard to have a cooperative relationship,” says David Gorin, VCA executive director and industry consultant. “VCA has offered full voting membership in VCA/ARVC to each state park and is now basically treating each state park as it would treat a commercial park.”
"The state has enrolled six parks as full members of VCA/ARVC effective immediately," Gorin reported. "Those parks will be listed in our 2012 directory and in all ways be full members of both associations."
“The state parks advertise, market and operate like a commercial park, and we feel that they should be treated like any other RV park or campground in the state,” he told WCM, adding that the road “isn’t entirely smooth and there will be bumps in the public/private relationship.”
NEW JERSEY: Private parks may have the upper hand in New Jersey where just 17 state parks offer a total of 1,200 campsites, compared to 25,000 in the private sector, represented by the New Jersey Campground Owners Association (NJCOA).
“Finances are poor, just as they are in many states. The (state) parks need a lot of maintenance, which there is no money for,” noted Jay Otto, co-executive director of the NJCOA. The state parks do not welcome pets or offer RV hookups, so these parks are used mostly by tenters. We generally do not view the state parks as competition.”
But the relationship is essentially cooperative. “We place a complementary full page ad in our campground guidebook listing all the state parks with camping facilities,” said Otto. “We are also allowed to place our guides in the (state) parks and they use the guide when they are full. We see the visitors to the state parks as future RVers who will come to the private parks. Also, once they see — or their kids see — private parks with all the amenities, we feel they will convert. We also recommend state parks to some who call our office.”
OHIO: The relationship between Ohio’s state parks and the Ohio Campground Owners Association (OCOA) is sort of a mix, notes Kristy M. Smith, OCOA executive director.
“Every year, the chief of the Division of Parks attends our annual conference to meet with our members to discuss ways we can better work together and ways they can help,” she said. “So for the most part, we have a cooperative relationship, with some state parks even referring campers to our members when they are full.”
However, as with most states, “a constant and ongoing issue between the state and private parks is rates. The state parks charge far less and that is always an issue that plagues our relationship with them,” she said.
“The state of Ohio has struggled to maintain and fund a balanced budget in this poor economy for quite a number of years now,” she added. “Thus, our state parks have suffered in the form of funding. This is an issue for the state parks and has been for quite some time.”
MICHIGAN: Tourism is an $18 billion business in Michigan and camping is a key contributor to that. While the Wolverine State has more than 950 licensed private parks with more than 111,000 licensed campsites, there are more than 160 county or government operated campgrounds with over 14,700 sites, 98 state parks and recreation areas and 133 state forest campgrounds under the auspices of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources plus seven forest/park/lakeshores under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. Total public sites: 15,000 sites on state and federal lands.
There are many opportunities for campers, but when the state decided to close 23 state forest campgrounds, the closures raised a stink. In June, those campgrounds were spared, due in part to the success of the state’s “Recreation Passport” program.
Nine months in, the program had met its “break-even point” of $11 million in revenue, according to Harold Herta, resource management chief for the Parks & Recreation division of the DNR. At that revenue mark, the Recreation Passport program had surpassed the annual sticker/day pass program it replaced, the Petoskey News-Review reported in late June.
Motorists can opt-in with their annual license plate renewal, paying an extra $10 for year-round access to Michigan’s state parks. Herta said participation is at 22% and is going up every month.
Revenue is being directed into reserved funds to pay for park infrastructure, fund local recreation grants and forest recreation – including helping to pay for operations of Michigan’s state forest campgrounds. Because of this extra revenue, combined with some shifting of funds by the state legislature, the 23 state forest campgrounds that were facing closure this year will be kept open.
Meanwhile, the general rapport with Michigan’s private parks is apparently decent. “ARVC Michigan has a cooperative relationship with Michigan state parks,” said Tracie Fisher, Michigan ARVC’s new executive director. “The recent coordination of Michigan Camping and RV Month (program) found us working together toward the same end: an enhanced experience for Michigan tourists, campers and RVers. A healthy state park system is good for everyone.”
IOWA: Westward to Iowa, the bad news is that Iowa’s state park system is “unsustainable,” Iowa Parks Bureau Chief Kevin Szcodronski told a Senate committee earlier this year. He said unkempt hiking paths, out-of-service facilities and days with no staff on duty could become the norm.
Szcodronski said his budget has been cut by about 20% in the past three years. He’s gone from 100 to about 79 full-time staffers, and seasonal staff went from about 300 positions to fewer than 60. Volunteers have provided maintenance and filled camp host positions to keep some parks open.
There is hope, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported in June.
Voters last fall approved the Iowa Water and Land Legacy fund, to which three-eighths of 1% of the next state sales tax increase will be committed. The fund, as currently estimated, would raise $150 million per year for natural resources programs. The DNR will receive $35 million for its conservation and recreation programs.
CALIFORNIA: California became one of the first states in the nation to join ARVC after ARVC extended the hand of friendship earlier this summer to all the nation’s state parks. The reason, we’re told, is that there is concern within the tourism and private park industry that budget cuts and the possible closure of 70 state parks in California pose a threat to tourism in general – including privately owned and operated campgrounds — in California and across the country.
The issue is that thousands of campers go to California to see the extraordinary sites located within the state parks, but camp in private parks along the way, and without many state parks open, private campgrounds could be hurt by fewer visitors, according to a news release.
However, Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks and incoming president of the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD), feels strongly that the challenge presented also provides opportunities to counter the situation with increased public-private park collaboration, particularly in the areas of marketing and media outreach, since both industries target the same consumer.
“We have a very strong interest in being together with the private park industry as we face these challenges,” said Coleman.
Coleman added that while 70 state parks in California are currently scheduled to close in July of 2012, opportunities exist for private park operators to take over management of several state park campgrounds. Coleman said she is also open to discussing ways in which state parks can help refer campers to privately owned parks, perhaps by directing them to websites such as GoCampingAmerica.com or Camp-California.com.
“We bring the destination,” Coleman said. “State parks are the thing that people want to come see. But we don’t offer that many spots for people to stay.”
Indeed, the entire California State Park system only has about 15,000 campsites, while the private park sector has more than 90,000 camping and RV sites. But by working together, Coleman said, both public and private parks could find ways to help each other.
Debbie Sipe, executive director of California ARVC, sees these efforts at public park-private park sector collaboration as a positive move, and noted that the state association is specifically interested in stepping up its marketing and public relations outreach efforts in collaboration with California State Parks.
Sipe said communicating with Coleman also enables her to better understand challenges facing state parks while also identifying ways in which state parks could help private park operators.
IDAHO: Idaho might feature as much harmony between public and private parks as anywhere in the U.S.
Anne Chambers, executive director of the Idaho RV Campgrounds Association (IRVCA), says the state and private campgrounds are “very cooperative.”
“More than 66% of Idaho is public land,” she noted. “Every year, thousands of campers come to Idaho to enjoy the diverse scenery and to participate in the world class recreational opportunities available on Idaho's public lands. Idaho's private campgrounds benefit, both directly and indirectly, from the abundance of accessible public land.”
“As a member of the Idaho Recreation and Tourism Initiative (IRTI), a unique coalition of state and federal agencies and not-for-profit organizations dedicated to providing Idaho citizens and visitors with expanded recreation opportunities, IRVCA has a long-standing cooperative relationship with the public land management agencies in Idaho, including Idaho state parks.
Nevertheless, amid this harmony, the state parks are absorbing deep and unprecedented budget cuts. The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation moved to a business-like model last year. The department laid off 25 employees, raised camping and visitation fees by around $5, and arranged for prison inmates to do maintenance on the cheap.
It also cut deals with corporate sponsors; an outdoor-clothing maker, for instance, will subsidize park ranger uniforms embossed with the company’s logo.
It also sought volunteers to clean restrooms and empty trash. Among those who stepped forward: a square-dancing group and a motorcycle club.
The agency now receives just $1.4 million from the state general fund, out of a $30 million annual operating budget, and will soon be self-sufficient – without closing parks, said Director Nancy Merrill. “We’re being really creative,” she said.”
That’s a far cry from what could have been.
Last year, Gov. C. L. Otter proposed eliminating the parks department altogether. That plan died amid resistance and concerns over a loss in federal matching funds, the New York Times noted. “We’re catering more to Middle America, to middle-class recreationists, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Richard Just, the chief planner at the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and immediate past president of National Association of Recreation Resource Planners.
KANSAS: Changes are afoot in Kansas where Gov. Mark Parkinson moved tourism to the Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism last year and hired a new secretary to head the department.
"At this time Kansas ARVC doesn't permit membership by public parks. Given the changes within the state of Kansas, and now with the new discussions between ARVC and the NASPD, Kansas ARVC (KARVC) members will be re-evaluating the issue of public park membership at its next scheduled meeting. How the vote comes out will be seen in February,” said Mary Arlington, KARVC president.
Up to now, the relationship between KARVC and the state parks has been both cooperative and adversarial, according to Natalie Donges, owner of Deer Grove RV Park in El Dorado, Kan., and KARVC’s newly appointed delegate to the Travel Industry Association of Kansas (TIAK).
“I believe that they (Kansas state parks) are hurting just like any other state organization. However, they still seem to be building and growing their lakes, cabins and campgrounds in order to attract more customers,” she said. For example, Marion Federal Reservoir just received $8 million to build new campgrounds, new roads and new buildings.