New Jersey Governor Seeks State Park Privatization
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants contractors to take over concessions and event services at state parks, saying the cash generated by the move can help keep the 50-plus state parks, forests and recreation areas open.
Christie ruled out hikes in admission or entry fees for state residents, though he said new rates for items such as group camping, boat storage and bus passes are likely, The Daily Journal, Vineland, reported.
“At a time when most other states are closing down state parks to save money or significantly increase entry fees, our administration is committed to keep all the state parks accessible for everyone to enjoy them,” he said Wednesday during a news conference at Liberty State Park. “Entrance fees will not change. If people can’t afford to come there, it doesn’t matter whether you keep the parks open or not.”
Island Beach State Park in Ocean County and Wharton State Forest in Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties also are in line to have snack stands and other services go under private control shortly, with other sites being added in the future, state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin said.
No contracts have been awarded.
The cost of operating the parks is about $39 million annually but the system generates $8 million through fees and leases, or 21% of the total operating cost, Martin said.
“It’s been a struggle to maintain these parks, keep them open and keep them running,” Martin said.
Just a few years ago, Parvin State Park in Pittsgrove was slated for closure as officials faced a multibillion-dollar state budget gap. The plan to close Parvin, however, was nixed later in the budget process.
Critics Reflect on Proposal
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the budget picture for the park system is not as dire as described by the Christie administration. He contends the DEP is not recouping all the money due from existing lease contracts.
The request for proposals to privatize services at Liberty State Park “places no limit on the amount the company can charge the public for these services,’’ Tittel said.
The proposal “is open-ended, limits public access and gives way too much power to the private company,” he said. “And now the governor wants similar leases to be used at more state parks.”
David Pringle, an official of another environmental group, said privatizing some services makes sense because of tight government budgets.
“This is what we need to keep our parks open. They’re struggling. This will keep them viable,” said Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation.
Pringle said administration officials have stated the contracts will be “consistent with the missions of the parks” and won’t, for instance, lead to deals giving naming rights to corporations.
“There’s a threshold that can’t be crossed. A McDonald’s or Walmart-sponsored park would be a wrong way to go and we’re confident that’s not the direction the Christie administration wants to go,” Pringle said.
At Island Beach State Park, Fred Fischer of Bristol, Pa., who was purchasing a fishing permit at the front gate, said he was skeptical.
“When a private concern comes in and they say that fees won’t increase, about six months to a year-and-a-half they go back on their word,’’ he said.
Brielle resident Paul Cardea said he didn’t feel Island Beach “should even fit into the category’’ of those parks chosen for an early start on privatization.
“This park is great. I don’t see why they would want to change anything,” Cardea said. “This is a great park and a lot of people come here. It has a small bathing area so I can’t how changing the lifeguards would save much money.”
I like it just the way it is,” said Michael Price of Evesham. “I think it is managed well and I don’t see a need to change anything. I admire the governor for his dedication in trying to bring costs down but in this case I think he should let it be.”
Fellow fishermen Russell Ducksworth of Willingboro was concerned about the tourism impact such changes might bring.
“I am not sure if the changes would mean higher (park) fees. If it does there are a lot of people who might think twice before loading up their station wagon,’’ Ducksworth said.
According to the DEP, Island Beach State Park is the only state park operating at a profit.
Assembly Environment Chairman John McKeon, D-Essex, said the plan would have to be carefully scrutinized. Private partnerships can be helpful, said McKeon, but he wouldn’t want to see the plan allow fast food restaurants being built in state forests.
“Any private partnerships must be in sync with our longstanding goals of preserving New Jersey’s great beauty and history with dignity,” he said.