Florida’s Parks Celebrating Hispanic Heritage

September 18, 2013 by · Comments Off on Florida’s Parks Celebrating Hispanic Heritage 

Donald Forgione, director of Florida Park Service

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Park Service join Gov. Rick Scott in honoring the significance and appreciation of Hispanic culture on Florida’s past, present and future during Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept.15-Oct. 15.

During this celebration, Florida residents and visitors are encouraged to celebrate “The Real Florida” by spending time with family and friends at the 12 Florida state parks that focus on preserving Hispanic heritage, reported.

Scott said, “Ann and I are excited to join all Floridians in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. With more than four million Hispanics that call Florida home, communities throughout the Sunshine State will celebrate with a wide range of events and activities. Florida’s State Parks will play a significant role in this important celebration. We encourage Florida families to spend time together exploring the natural and cultural treasures at Florida’s State Parks, while celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.”

“While it’s impossible to capture the importance of Florida’s Hispanic past, present and future in one month, we enjoy telling the stories at our state parks during Hispanic Heritage Month,” said Donald Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service, “Family is an important thread in every culture, so during this special month we’re encouraging visitors to host a celebratory family picnic at a state park or take a visit a state park with significant Hispanic history.”

Click here to see a rundown of all the activities at various state parks.


Why Florida Rejected Land for a New Park

February 19, 2013 by · Comments Off on Why Florida Rejected Land for a New Park 

Map shows the location of Peaceful Horse Ranch in South Florida.

The 4,100-acre Peaceful Horse Ranch lies along seven miles of the Peace River, its banks thick with sabal palms, cypress and live oak, its woods and wetlands full of bald eagles, gopher tortoises, wood storks, sandhill cranes and ospreys.

Three years ago, Florida officials added that land to the list of environmentally sensitive properties they wanted to acquire, the Tampa Bay Times reported. But the ranch was valued at $14 million, a steep price at a time when the state Legislature had cut back money for the state’s land-buying program. Then a phosphate mining company bought it.

Last year, the state caught a break. The phosphate company, as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups, agreed to hand it over to the state for free. Mosaic mining officials would even throw in $2 million for upkeep.

But to the surprise of both Mosaic and the environmentalists who sued it, the state has said no thanks.

“They decided they were not in a position to take it at this time,” Mosaic phosphate spokeswoman Martha Monfried said.

Why would the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) turn down free land?

“Crazy, huh?” said Beverly Griffiths, who chairs the Sierra Club Tampa Bay Group, the lead plaintiff in the legal settlement with Mosaic.

She said DEP officials had told her group that they were hampered by legislative budget cuts: “They said they didn’t have the money to restore it and maintain it and build the facilities that would be needed to make it a state park.”

However, DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said it wasn’t the money. Instead, he said the agency’s own high standards convinced him to turn down the donation. The DEP’s park experts toured the ranch, he said, and “determined the property was not appropriate to take on as a state park.”

“We have very high standards for our visitors’ experience,” said Donald Forgione a 29-year DEP veteran who heads up the award-winning state park system. “While there might be a need to conserve it, it doesn’t lend itself to becoming a state park at this time.”

Click here to read the entire story.

Campgrounds Close as Isaac Approaches

August 27, 2012 by · Comments Off on Campgrounds Close as Isaac Approaches 

Tropical Storm Isaac’s projected path.

Many state and national parks along the Gulf Coast are closing due to the threat from Tropical Storm Isaac, reported.

The National Park Service closed Gulf Islands National Seashore on Sunday night (Aug. 26) and evacuated campers from the Fort Pickens campground in advance of the storm. The National Weather Service has also issued marine forecast warnings, stating: “Mariners are urged to pay close attention to the latest track [of the storm] and position information and take appropriate action as necessary.”

Florida state parks have a long list of closures. Louisiana now also has a series of state park closures and advisories listed on their website.

People with camping, hiking or other recreation plans in Florida, lower Alabama, coastal Mississippi or southern Louisiana are urged to check with the park for current conditions.

Residents and visitors are urged to exercise caution as the storm moves closer.




Report: Florida State Parks Visits Up 3.4%

August 10, 2012 by · Comments Off on Report: Florida State Parks Visits Up 3.4% 

Attendance at Florida state parks increased for the second straight year in fiscal year 2011-12 following a decrease three years ago.

The number of visitors to the 160 state parks increased by 3.4 percent, from 20.4 million in 2010-11 to 21.1 million this past fiscal year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said Thursday (Aug. 9).

A DEP spokeswoman said the increase could be because of many factors including the affordability of parks, good weather in 2011 with no major tropical storms, and work with tourism partners including Visit Florida, the Florida Current reported.

“From coast to coast, the Florida Park Service offers nature-based recreation and environmental resource protection at its best,” DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. said in a news release.

The statewide record for park attendance was set in 2008-09 with 21.4 million visitors.

The 3.7 percent increase this year and a 1.6 percent increase in 2010-11 followed a 6 percent decline in 2009-10.

The decline followed park admission fee increases ranging from 40 percent to 60 percent in 2009. The park system collected more revenue in 2009-10 — $52.7 million compared to $43.6 million in 2008-09.

State Park officials said in 2010 they didn’t know why attendance had declined but they pointed out that the record cold winter also coincided with decreased attendance at popular beach state parks in South Florida.

Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin was the most popular state park in 2011-12 for the sixth year in a row with 1,089,588 visitors. Rounding out the top five were Gasparilla Island State Park in Boca Grande, St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach, Lovers Key State Park in Fort Myers Beach and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.

Retired RVing Couple Visits All 160 Florida State Parks

April 30, 2012 by · Comments Off on Retired RVing Couple Visits All 160 Florida State Parks 

Red dots mark the locations of the 160 state parks in Florida. Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

The bucket list for Pat and Ray Ciemniecki is a work in progress. It was in that spirit the 70-year-old couple managed to check off the first goal on the list.

Visit each of Florida’s state parks.

There are 160 of them.

It took the retired Manatee County educators four years to do them all, beginning with Lake Manatee State Park and finishing up last February with Paynes Creek just north of Wauchula, the Bradenton Herald reported.

They received a nice letter of acknowledgment from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as well.

It complements the four scrapbooks Pat Ciemniecki assembled chronicling their adventures.

“People our age don’t all go marching around state parks and we’re thankful we could do it,” she said. “It’s an exciting accomplishment.”

Unique, too.

Just 25 people have done it since Florida State Parks began keeping track in June 2008.

Others completed the circuit before then — state parks average 20 million visitors annually — but not many.

“They’re in exclusive company,” parks official Pat Gillespie said of the Ciemnieckis.

How they got started was simple enough. They’d gone to a festival at Lake Manatee and one of the things offered was a state park passport — a collector’s journal for planning park visits, recording experiences and collecting each park’s unique stamp.

The Ciemnieckis were inspired.

High school sweethearts from Linden, N.J., they’ve been RVing and camping for 40 years and saw virtually the entire country with their two children who now have their own children.

This journey was for grandma and grandpa.

“We said why don’t we make it a goal go to every state park in Florida?” Ray Ciemniecki said. “We started out small, went to this one and that one and then really got going.

“We didn’t care how long it took. Whether it was four years or 10, we decided to go to every single one.”

They’d map out an area and hit the road in their 40-foot motorhome with car in tow for more than a month at a time.

That some parks didn’t have overnight camping wasn’t a problem.

They’d hook up the RV at one that did and drive to the smaller parks in the area on day trips.

On other trips, if the park was unreachable by car — i.e., Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island, both west of Tampa — they’d take a boat.

“It’s no more expensive than staying at home,” Ray Ciemniecki said. “Except for gas ($300 a fill-up), you’re living in your own little cottage. It works out pretty well.”

Thanks to senior citizen discount rates, the couple stayed at some state parks for as little as $6 per night.

“A lot of Manatee County people like to have a second home in the mountains, but we’ve never wanted that — going back to the same place every year,” Pat Ciemniecki said. “We go to a different place all the time.”

Their favorite area was the Panhandle with 34 state parks, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park on Santa Rosa Beach foremost among them.

“It was the most elaborate of the state parks in terms of accommodations — 50-amp electricity, water, sewers, swimming pool, cable TV, tram to the beach,” Ray Ciemniecki said. “It was like being in a resort.”

At the other extreme were parks like the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, 25 miles north of Okeechobee that felt like 250.

“It’s so remote I told the ranger the only people who stay there are in the witness protection program,” Ray Ciemniecki joked. “You never see another human being.”

They saw things they never knew existed in Florida.

Like caverns and waterfalls.

They saw plenty of critters, too.

“We went canoeing at Myakka and we must’ve seen a thousand alligators easy in a four-mile stretch,” Ray Ciemniecki said. “It was cool.”

So was a chance meeting with some Apalachicola oystermen while the couple was visiting St. George Island State Park.

“We were canoeing in Apalachicola Bay and they were coming into the boat ramp where we were,” Ray Ciemniecki said. “I thought about buying some oysters. They said sure. How fresh can you get them? So I went over with a big pot, filled it up and said how much? He said $3.

“There were 50-60 oysters in that pot. We ate four dozen right there.”

As pleasing as that sounds, there were parts of their trips to state parks they found disturbing. Legislative budget cuts have had an impact.

“They’ve lost a lot of staff and programs, roads need repaving, the general upkeep has slackened off,” Pat Ciemniecki said. “Parks have suffered.”

Yet if anyone qualifies as passionate advocates for Florida’s state parks, it’s them.

“My advice is go to your nearest state park,” Ray Ciemniecki said. “Most are less than an hour away. Spend some time, walk, hike, don’t just drive through. Visit the attractions there. You’ll get hooked.”



Newspaper: Florida State Park Plan ‘Half-Baked’

August 12, 2011 by · Comments Off on Newspaper: Florida State Park Plan ‘Half-Baked’ 

Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial from the St. Petersburg Times and is critical of the state of Florida’s administration in trying to push through privatization of campgrounds on state parks to create jobs.

Newly released electronic messages from Tallahassee offer an object lesson in why citizens can’t leave the future of Florida in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. E-mails between Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staffers as they rushed to add privately built and run campgrounds to more than 50 state parks reveal an abdication of stewardship to curry favor with a new boss. That’s not the mission for the state’s environmental protection agency, much less the state park system. Citizen outrage derailed the plan for at least Honeymoon Island State Park.

As St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman reported Wednesday, the agency’s rush to prove itself to new Republican Gov. Rick Scott began even before he took office, as agency leaders sought to meet transition team members’ expectations that the agency would create private-sector jobs or raise revenue.

Adding zip lines to state parks was discussed, only to be derailed when officials figured out they weren’t nearly as simple to construct, maintain and operate as initially thought. There was also talk of creating “pocket parks” near the state’s commercial theme parks.

But the most radical idea of all — allowing private companies to build and operate campgrounds — is what finally gained traction. A list of 56 campgrounds was quickly assembled, even though agency officials hadn’t done the requisite homework to ensure the sites were even suitable. Eventually, even the federal government weighed in, warning that campgrounds on some sites would have to meet federal rules because the parkland had been purchased with federal environmental conservation funds.

None of that, however, was clear to the public early last month as the DEP, with Scott’s blessing, pressed forward and claimed it had studied the issue thoroughly. After hundreds showed up in Dunedin to protest adding a campground, including RV parking, at Honeymoon Island State Park, the agency finally acquiesced. Scott suggested the public sentiment was too much to overcome, but the DEP is still considering the campgrounds elsewhere in the state.

But now it’s clear the plan was half-baked from the start, built more on political rhetoric than on sound environmental or recreational policy. That’s a surefire way to guarantee Florida’s long-term interests aren’t being served. Floridians deserve more from their leaders and government, particularly an agency with a title that includes “environmental protection.” Going forward, the DEP can expect much more scrutiny of its private campground plans, and it has no one to blame but itself.

Newspaper: Jobs Push Inspired Florida Park Privatization

August 10, 2011 by · Comments Off on Newspaper: Jobs Push Inspired Florida Park Privatization 

Donald Forgione, author of controversial Florida RV park development plan

A controversial plan to allow private contractors to build and operate campsites at state parks in Florida came from a push to create private-industry jobs to help Gov. Rick Scott fulfill a campaign promise, according to internal e-mails exchanged by parks officials earlier this year.

As a result, officials rushed out a hastily drafted list of 56 parks where they believed new campsites could work, including a suggestion to somehow squeeze 120 of them into Honeymoon Island State Park near Dunedin — a number later scaled back to 45, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Park officials told the public the choices were rooted in their extensive expertise, but internal e-mails show they knew it was a rush job. In a May 9 e-mail, parks planning chief Albert Gregory wrote that the list of parks was “based on a fast assessment that was done to meet a very short deadline. It involved only two questions: (1) is there a large enough area of uplands in the park to build additional campsites; and (2) how many? It didn’t consider anything else.”

But the push for privately run campgrounds in the publicly owned parks — including spaces for recreational vehicles — ran into serious problems. Officials faced not just vocal opposition from fans of the parks, but also landscape issues and legal questions from federal officials.

In the end, none of the proposed plans will be headed to an advisory committee vote this month. Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione conceded in an interview last week that “we definitely need to do our due diligence a little more.”

However, the push for campsites has not been abandoned.

“We need more camping in Florida state parks, period, the end,” said Forgione, who has worked for the service, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection, since 1983.

The whole thing started a month after Scott was elected on a promise to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years.

“Anytime anybody gets a new boss, you think, ‘How can we help our new boss succeed?’ ” explained Forgione.

But to Julie Wraithmell, of Audubon of Florida, using the public parks to create private jobs makes no sense.

“That’s not the park service’s mission,” she said. “It’s providing recreational opportunities for people and protecting our natural resources.”

Nevertheless, that was the message the park service got.

Ideas Abound

“Our new governor has put together a transition team that has been meeting with the leaders of every agency in state government,” Danny Jones, the top parks official in the Panhandle, wrote to his staff on Dec. 6. “They are looking at ways to create new jobs in Florida and to increase the state’s revenue.”

He encouraged the staff to think of ways to do both: “Your ideas may not be as crazy as you think.” For example, he said, “Does your unit plan call for cabins or campgrounds to be built?”

Officials talked about putting zip lines in parks. In a Jan. 5 e-mail, Forgione wrote about taking DEP deputy secretary Bob Ballard to visit a privately run zip line in the Panhandle.

“I can assure you zip lining is a legitimate outdoor recreational experience which has the potential to have a minimal impact on the environment (perhaps even less of an impact than a nature trail),” Forgione wrote. “We had a terrific time and plan on meeting with the management of this and other zip line operators next week to begin the process of soliciting zip line operations in Florida state parks.”

However, Forgione said last week, they soon learned that building zip lines was far more complex than building a nature center, and for now have postponed their plans.

There was even discussion about creating pocket parks — with campgrounds — near attractions such as Walt Disney World and shuttling tourists between the two. The DEP’s senior architect suggested that these parks would could combine “the premium urban campground with the new zip line concept,” but now that, too, has been deferred.

By far the boldest idea was adding campgrounds to parks that did not allow camping — and letting private companies build and operate them, something the state had never done before.

Normally, each new campsite would cost the state an average of $40,000, according to DEP figures. But officials knew they faced unprecedented budget cuts: Layoffs, no money for buying park lands, and little for building facilities. That was another reason to let private companies build and operate them.

List Hastily Assembled

The big question was where to put them. The staff quickly pulled together its list — including Honeymoon Island, the state’s most popular park. The flaws in that hasty list soon became apparent, as they had to scale back what would fit at Honeymoon Island.

In fact, when a DEP biologist walked the proposed campground area at DeLeon Springs State Park, near Deland, he wrote in a July 7 e-mail that he found “a large portion of this area is not the hammock we thought it was, instead it is a wetland.” Worse, he found “by far the dominant plant … is the endangered yellow anise. It is absolutely everywhere … Impacts will be unavoidable.”

Federal officials raised other concerns. The National Park Service pointed out that the state had used money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy some park land — Honeymoon Island, for instance. That meant any new campgrounds there would have to comply with a list of federal rules, it warned.

When word began to spread about what the DEP had planned for Honeymoon Island, DeLeon Springs and two other parks first in line for new campsites, a public outcry began that did not end until Scott announced the camping plan would be pulled for more study.

The governor took that step after hundreds of opponents turned out for a rowdy public hearing in Dunedin, presided over by Gregory, on the Honeymoon Island proposal. Many complained the DEP had been trying to slide the changes through without telling the public in advance.

“We survived,” Gregory e-mailed his boss afterward. “Opponents 1,000, proponents 0. Had to move through presentations fast. No one was listening.”

Florida’s Park Privatization Plan Rated

July 20, 2011 by · Comments Off on Florida’s Park Privatization Plan Rated 

The governor’s office has scrapped a plan that would have allowed private companies to set up camping facilities at four state parks, WPTV-TV, West Palm Beach, Fla., has reported.

Even so, lawmakers may still privatize camping at other facilities, including John D. MacArthur State Park. It’s an idea that’s raising concerns from visitors and campers alike.

On sunny days, visitors flock to John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. It’s known for its beauty, access to the water and beach.

Frequent park guests like Chris Chan, who was visiting family from New York, worry that allowing private campgrounds could change that.

“That might bring a lot of noisiness and a lot of companies trying to build up other shops,” he said. “Right now, it’s more private, more secluded for the guests that want to come.”

It has others worrying about who could be running the camps.

“It’s a state park so you don’t want anyone moving in and disrupting the peace and an all over mess,” explained Daphna More of Lake Worth. “It’s a nice idea, but I don’t know that it would work out that well.”

Some park guests think adding campgrounds could work.

“As long as it’s environmentally friendly and takes care of the sea turtle, the wildlife, it could be a good thing,” said Jimmy Rivera of New York.

The nearest state park to MacArthur State Park that allows camping is Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound. Both Jonathan Dickinson and MacArthur State Park see about 150,000 visitors a year. Only at Jonathan Dickinson, about 59,000 of those visitors are overnight guests.

Robert and Sandra Johnstone from Fort Lauderdale go camping almost every month.

“The freedom, the outdoors, yeah,” Sandra Johnstone said. “You’re away from the city for awhile.”

However, even they have concerns about whether private companies or the state would be running the campgrounds.

“It really depends a lot on if it’s going to cost us more money because we’re seniors, Florida seniors,” she added.

Gov. Scott said he wants to make Florida’s state parks more popular with visitors, but right now, with the idea drawing opposition from Democrats and Republicans, it may not be moving ahead for awhile.

Florida State Park Privatization Plan Festers

July 19, 2011 by · Comments Off on Florida State Park Privatization Plan Festers 

Gov. Rick Scott

After 1,000 angry residents, including several Republican lawmakers, showed up at a public hearing in Dunedin, Fla., located on the state’s Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Scott this month killed a hastily contrived plan that would have allowed a private vendor to set up an RV camp at the beachfront state park.

But introducing what Scott’s administration calls “family camping” to 55 other parks, including Palm Beach County’s John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, is still on the table, the Palm Beach Post reported.

Critics call it the equivalent of paving the parks with Walmart parking lots, and it’s just the latest of Scott’s public-area proposals riling them.

Since taking office in January, Scott and his administration also have unsuccessfully considered shutting down many of the state’s parks and allowing Jack Nicklaus to build golf courses within state parks, starting with Jonathan Dickinson State Park in southern Martin County.

Scott “seems to just quickly draw his gun and shoot without asking questions first,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of 14 Central Florida lawmakers, mostly Republicans, who have gone on record opposing RV camping at Honeymoon Island State Park. “He does. And then he has to go back and revise either his comments or the policy.”

Camping is already allowed at 53 of the state’s 160 parks, but state officials in June fast-tracked plans to allow camping, including recreational vehicle camping, at four more parks, including Florida’s most popular park, Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, about 20 miles north of St. Petersburg; and at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs, De Leon Springs and Fanning Springs state parks.

The state also chose 52 other parks, including MacArthur, where camping could be added by allowing private companies to build and run campsites.

Republican opposition

But after public hearings early this month at the four initial sites, the Scott administration is slowing down.

The nearly four-hour public meeting July 5 in Dunedin drew 1,000 people – double the 500 seats available and all of them opposed to the proposal to allow RVs overnight at the park, which, like MacArthur, currently closes at dusk and does not allow camping of any kind.

Patrice Weaver’s plea was representative: “I have seen my state built over, paved over and drained,” the frequent park visitor told the state parks officials. “Please leave it alone. Get the dollar signs out of your eyes.”

Among those objecting at the hearing were at least four Republican lawmakers.

Four days later, Scott and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Herschel Vinyard announced they were scrapping the plan for Honeymoon Island and rethinking how to go about expanding camping elsewhere. Votes on the other three parks where the plan was being fast-tracked will not be held on Aug. 19 by the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council as planned.

Asked last week about the plan, Scott said, “We want people to use our state parks. But we’ve got to do it in a manner that we keep our nice environment. So we should continue to look at these things. But we’ve got to listen to the public. It’s their parks.”

But he indicated he was still interested in possibly expanding camping at other parks.

“We’re going to really look at it,” he said Wednesday. “Look at it very closely, and be very careful. I want to get that third gold medal.”

Florida is the first state to twice win gold medals from the National Recreation and Parks Association for having the nation’s best park system.

But critics say Scott, who has lived in Florida for less than a decade, doesn’t understand what the gold medals represent.

“This is an award-winning parks system that got an award not because it created RV campgrounds but because it balances Florida’s unique natural resources and the ability of people to go and enjoy those natural resources,” said Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper. “That doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you pave an area to allow people to sleep in an air-conditioned building overnight.”

“They’re talking about putting a building with its own motor in the middle of an area that was preserved to provide a natural experience. I just don’t think they’re being honest with their arguments here.”

More campsites needed

Donald Forgione, author of controversial Florida RV park development plan

Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione said the plan to double the number of state parks with campsites by having them privatized isn’t aimed at making money for the cash-strapped state.

Instead, he said, the idea is to accommodate visitors. Forgione said the No. 1 complaint about state parks is there aren’t enough campsites, and the ones that exist are booked solid. More than 100 vendors run concessions within state parks, but none of them operates campgrounds.

The 53 parks where camping is offered are successful, Forgione said. Many day visitors to the parks don’t even know that campers are using the same parks, he said.

“We do it in a very tasteful manner. We separate day-use activities vs. overnight activities,” he said. “It provides an entire other element. Based on our history, our successful history, we would only be an enhancement to, not a distraction of.”

Public input about the campsites will be an important factor in the final decision, the DEP’s Vinyard said in his letter to Fasano.

But the senator predicts Scott won’t have much luck in following through on the camping idea, because opposition came from Republicans, Democrats and even tea party members who supported the former health care executive in his campaign for governor.

“I think it can be stopped completely if those residents in Palm Beach and those residents in Fanning Springs and others come out in full force as it was done in Dunedin,” Fasano said.

Conservationist concerns

Although no specific plans have been drawn up for MacArthur park, there is already opposition.

Red star marks location of John D. MacArthur State Park, possible site for an RV park.

“It will be a total disaster,” said Cynthia Plockelman, a retired South Florida Water Management District special librarian who serves as vice president of the Audubon Society of the Everglades.

The 325-acre barrier island park, nestled on two-lane A1A between the exclusive gated community of Lost Tree Village and the high-rise condos of Singer Island, is home to one of the state’s only coastal forests, nearly 2 miles of beach and offshore reefs. Palm Beach County’s only state park, it drew more than 133,000 visitors last year.

Unlike Scott, other governors, including Republican Jeb Bush, have relied on input from conservationists when making decisions about state lands, “in part just to avoid controversy,” Draper said.

“He has been moving forward with ideas without really thinking about them and without really reaching out to the constituencies that are concerned about them,” Dreper said.

Some Florida State Park Ops Already Privatized

July 18, 2011 by · Comments Off on Some Florida State Park Ops Already Privatized 

Quietly, and with hardly anyone objecting, a big chunk of the services provided to visitors at Florida’s state parks is being privatized.

As of this month the state has handed over the job of running a lodge, a number of restaurants and gift shops, and one canoe and kayak rental operation over to private contractors, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Blame the tight budget, say officials from the agency that oversees the state parks, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Gov. Rick Scott told all of his state agencies to come up with ways to cut their budgets by 15%, explained DEP spokeswoman Kristin Lock. One of the ideas the DEP suggested: Turn over some operations at five state parks to private contractors.

This trend has been going on for some time as the state has looked for ways to squeeze more money out of the public’s strong affection for the natural beauty found in its 160 parks.

Nine years ago, for instance, individual state parks stopped taking phone reservations for campsites. Instead, the DEP signed a contract with ReserveAmerica to handle all campsite reservations by phone and online. The move made the state money, but added extra fees onto the cost of camping.

As of this summer, “we currently have 100 agreements with private concessionaires operating in state parks,” Lock said, noting they include everything from vending machines to boat rentals.

All told, she said, the cut has eliminated about 24 full-time state jobs and reduced the budget by $3.5 million.

Not everyone is happy, however. Lock reports that her agency fields about 15 calls a month from consumers complaining about park concessions.

• • •

Daniel LeBlanc

Three of the newest contracts were awarded to a single Brevard County company: Cape Leisure Corp., founded by Daniel LeBlanc. By handing over some park operations to his company, LeBlanc said, “the state gives up very little control, but they give up all the risk” of losing money. “The state has made a great decision here.”

But it’s not altogether rosy. “There’s a little bit of pain and uncomfortableness with these transfers, because of the state employees involved,” he said. Some get hired by his company, but others have to go find other jobs, he explained.

Cape Leisure took over the restaurant, cafe, gift shop, and canoe and kayak rental operations at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County. For that, the company will pay a $2,000 monthly base fee to the state, plus a 4% commission on gross sales through November of next year. The commission will eventually increase to 8%.

Cape Leisure also took over the lodge, restaurant, gift shop and soda fountain at Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee. It has been in charge of selling all the food at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County since last fall, but will now expand to handling the gift shops, too.

Cape Leisure, which has about 150 employees, was already running concessions at Fort George Island Cultural State Park and Anastasia State Park. If other parks come open, LeBlanc said, he’ll submit bids for those too.

• • •

How can a private company produce more revenue from a park than the state? The key is expertise in pricing and marketing, LeBlanc said.

“We know how much we ought to be paying for a T-shirt and how many to order,” he said. “And we know how to do marketing. Before we took over the Wakulla Springs lodge, it didn’t have its own website, much less online booking. Just that, all by itself, can make a difference.”

There’s more to come. State officials are negotiating with Advantus Leisure Management Services to run some operations at Hillsborough River State Park, where everything in the state-run gift shop is now 75% off in anticipation of the takeover. Meanwhile, state officials are trying to figure out what services they can farm out to private contractors at Rainbow Springs State Park.

That the state is now handing some operations at Weeki Wachee Springs over to a private company is somewhat ironic. Three years ago the state took control of the venerable roadside attraction from a private company with a long history of financial problems. That’s how mermaids wound up on the state’s payroll.

Twenty years ago, LeBlanc served as vice president of marketing for the Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee Springs attractions, as well as the Weeki Wachee Springs Holiday Inn. He later became president of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex before launching Cape Leisure in 2008.

“Weeki, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for it,” LeBlanc said.

After the state took over Weeki Wachee from its owners, its park rangers did a great job, especially in dealing with the canoe and kayak rentals, known as Paddling Adventures, said Clay Colson, a sometime river guide and leader of the environmental group Citizens for Sanity.

“The Paddling Adventures was never in more capable hands than with the state, which made upgrades and improvements to the entire facility,” Colson said.

He’s worried about a private company taking it over again because, he said, “no one has ever done the outstanding job the state park service has.”

Rose Rocco, an ex-Hernando County commissioner and president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs, said she’s taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the change. State officials “seem to think the privatization is a good thing, but we’ll see how it all works out,” she said. “Thank goodness they left the mermaid show. That’s historical.”

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