Public/Private Park Relationships Over U.S.
Even without an organized effort to get along, pure economics may end up leveling the playing field between the public parks and private parks.
So surmises Jeff Sims, director of state relations and program advocacy with the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
With most states under budgetary pressures, rather than subsidize their state park and campground budgets with tax revenue, Sims says, “a lot of parks and campgrounds are generating their own revenue and becoming more in line with the market.”
A look around the states yields various findings.
CONY Proposes that Privates Run State Facilities
In New York, where the private campground industry operates between 45,000 and 50,000 campsites and the state operates about 15,000 sites, the privates have suggested the cash-strapped Empire State turn over operation of state-run campgrounds, which currently undercut the private operators, to concessioners.
Donald Bennett Jr., president and CEO of Campground Owners of New York (CONY), floated the proposal during testimony to a State Assembly committee on tourism, the arts, state parks and sports development on Jan. 15.
The plan would create a more level playing field in New York because in order to cover items such as wages, taxes, insurance and utilities, the rates at public parks would have to rise accordingly, Bennett said.
“If the burden were put on someone else, the state could take the money to subsidize camping and put it toward capital improvement projects,” he noted.
Bennett conceded to Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) that the odds of state approval of the CONY proposal are “slim and none, but it’s an idea we’re putting out there. We have asked the state to take a look at it.”
CONY revisited its proposal during a lobbying effort on March 5 in Albany.
Like other states, New York has fallen far behind in campground maintenance and has troubles funding its parks. The New York park system is one of the nation’s oldest park systems. “Capital monies to resuscitate all historic sites and parks is not as plentiful as they need to be,” he said.
The idea of fairness also enters into the CONY proposal.
“We’re subsidizing 45% of the campground stays and yet we’re constantly hurting our own (private parks’) budget,” he said. “And the other thing that gets me as a tax-paying New York citizen, we’re subsidizing a lot of out-of-staters’ vacations. If the state wants to look at an in-state discount, I would be OK with that.”
The CONY proposal has support with the state’s ski industry and private golf course owners who see similar unfair competition from state-run ski resorts and golf courses.
Scandal Further Clouds CalARVC Stance
The relationship between California state parks and the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC) is “non-existent,” says CalARVC Executive Director Debbie Sipe.
“We were developing a relationship until the mess at California state parks last year,” she explained. The “mess” was the threat to close 70 state parks due to budget woes and then the discovery of an uncovered hidden slush fund, which led to the resignation of Director Ruth Coleman. Many non-profits then decided to pull their funding support for state parks.
Coleman served under “2 ½ governors (administrations), even through change of parties, which showed what a good job she was doing at state parks, theoretically,” Sipe recalled.
In December, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a retired Marine general, Anthony Jackson, to replace Coleman.
Jackson, a veteran RVer, now spends time each week in the field, visiting state parks in his RV.
When contacted by WCM, Sipe was preparing a welcome letter to Jackson, stating in part “when you get a breather, let’s talk.”
“He has so much repair work to do, I don’t expect to hear form him for years,” Sipe said, not entirely in jest.
“I think he has been brought in to get things in order but I don’t expect a long-term relationship,” she said.
Aside from the ongoing turmoil at the state level, Sipe says the competitive issue is not nearly as significant as it is in other states.
Of California’s 270 state parks, 100 have camping facilities. “Right now, state parks are charging a fairly competitive market rate for their sites, so that is a good thing. We’re not competing with them on a price basis. But with a new governor and a change in leadership, that could change.”
Other threats loom on the horizon, however.
State park funding has been slashed by 40% over the last four years, Sipe said, and there is no consistent or reliable funding. “It’s always at the whim of the budget and the current legislators in place,” she said. “State parks are still trying to find out how to move forward and come up with a reliable and consistent level of funding. And they still have a ton of deferred maintenance.”
“The challenge,” she added, “is that because they are so revenue-starved, they’re looking to our industry to see what they can do to bring in increased revenues. They would like to expand their (lodging) offerings with yurts, tent cabins, park models, etc,” she said.
She concluded, “They still have a long, long row to hoe. I wish Anthony Jackson well in trying to evaluate everything.”
Communications Improve In the Sunshine State
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott created a bru-ha-ha in 2011 when his state park director, Donald Forgione, proposed bringing concessionaire-operated, RV-friendly campgrounds to Honeymoon Island State Park. After a massive public outcry, which included opposition from the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, Scott dropped the plan.
At the time, Florida ARVC Executive Director Bobby Cornwell told WCM he was uncertain how the ill-fated plan would affect future relations between his association and the state. “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.”
Since 2011, that relationship has improved for the better, Cornwell said.
“Communications between Florida ARVC and the State Park Director, Donald Forgione, have increased, and Mr. Forgione seems to be understanding of our concerns regarding the unfair competition issue,” Cornwell told WCM. “We try to meet on a regular basis to stay in-touch and to discuss any concerns or issues we may have. At times we may have differing positions, but at least communications are open and I believe there is more of an awareness now how the actions of government may have unintended consequences by negatively affecting the private sector.
“We also know we are basically in the same industry and in most cases serve the same customer. Through our discussion we have realized we have similar problems, issues and goals, and it makes sense for us to try to work together if possible.”
Marketing Gains In Colorado
In Colorado, relationships remain fine, says Mari Garland, outgoing president of the Colorado Campgrounds and Lodge Owners Association (CCLOA).
The Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife joined CCLOA as one public lands associate member within the past two years and the parties see each other at many state level tourism meetings.
“One of our board members represents the whole outdoor recreation sector on the Colorado Tourism Office and Tourism Industry Association of Colorado Boards,” Garland noted. “CCLOA is marketing the state parks in our Camp Colorado guide and as a single listing on the CampColorado.com website. We would like to pursue more joint marketing opportunities as we develop the relationship.”
The two entities are not producing a joint camping guide as of yet, so distribution of the CampColorado brochure is still 80,000 for 2013.
“In 2011 Colorado State Parks and Colorado Wildlife merged and that merger has been a consuming distraction for folks from both entities. We are hopeful that our ability to work together toward our common good will increase as their internal issues decrease,” she said.