Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Corbett suggested the commonwealth consider leasing state park operations and services. Almost immediately and without thoughtful consideration, pundits launched political fire, claiming "privateers" would exploit or commercialize our natural resources beyond recognition.
This knee-jerk reaction to privatization exists in part due to a misconception that the public will lose control of parks. In reality, the opposite is true. By bringing in private-sector partners, state government can improve services to park visitors, save taxpayer dollars and better manage our public lands.
In the midst of major budget shortfalls, state parks often draw the short straw, contrasted with budget behemoths like welfare and education. In 2009, Pennsylvania's nationally-acclaimed state parks cut operating hours, consolidated facilities and reduced staffing following decreased funding. But the reality is declining state revenues don't have to result in less accessible parks as long as innovative and proven solutions are considered.
Public-private partnerships involve the government partnering with nonprofit associations or for-profit firms to deliver services for or even operate public parks. In these arrangements, the government park authority dictates every detail in a contract between the parties, which protects the public interest by controlling fees, restricting development and setting operations and maintenance standards.
Contracting out services such as building maintenance, landscaping, janitorial work and trail maintenance to private vendors will provide significant cost savings, typically ranging from 10 to 30 percent.
Additionally, nonprofit operating agencies provide a proven model for sustainable parks. Nonprofit organizations can take primary responsibility for park operations and raise money for the park, which may be supplemented with state support. One of the country's most famous parks, New York City's Central Park, is run by the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy. The group has raised more than $100 million since its founding in 1980, taking over the care of trees, lawns and plants and providing more than 80 percent of the park's operating costs. The Conservancy literally rescued the park from rampant crime and poor maintenance -- after it was spun off from city government.
Pennsylvania's only privately managed park -- Salt Springs State Park -- is run by the nonprofit Friends of Salt Spring Park. The nonprofit has operated and maintained the park since 1994, offering educational programs and community events. The park, similar to most other state-run parks, charges no entrance fee, using donations and grants to operate the park and restore local historical sites.
Not to be forgotten, the concession model is yet another proven way to manage parks privately. The state can partner with private organizations to run concessions such as restaurants, gift shops, watercraft and bicycle rentals, and golf course operations. The Keystone State currently has some 150 concessions operated by private companies. Nationally, private concessionaires operate in many of the "crown jewels" of the national park system, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone Parks.
In their more comprehensive form, "whole park" concessions hold private companies responsible for managing an entire park (or a bundle of parks) under a performance-based contract. This is an approach used extensively by the U.S. Forest Service -- which pioneered whole park concessions amid federal budget cuts in the 1980s -- and the agency has hundreds of recreation sites nationwide operating under such partnerships today.
Concessionaires are only allowed to do what is permitted under contract, and they cannot change fees, facilities or operating policies and procedures without approval from the public parks agency. The federal government has relied on concessions extensively, but states have been slow to consider partnerships for entire park operations.
Public-private partnerships in state parks have shown to save taxpayers money, provide high-quality services to park visitors, and protect open spaces. And it's not just parks that could benefit from these partnerships. Gov. Corbett recently told state managers, "Agencies should identify opportunities for functional outsourcing or consolidations. The 'Yellow Pages' test provides a good place to start." The Commonwealth Foundation's report, Privatizing "Yellow Pages" Government, describes the Yellow Pages test and identifies businesses government should remove itself from in order to benefit citizens and taxpayers.
With a recession and state financial woes unlikely to yield in the near future, lawmakers shouldn't wait to implement sustainable solutions, lest our state parks face the fiscal chopping block. Our fear of the unfamiliar could cost us our treasured park system if we continue to ignore solutions with a proven track record of success.
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Katrina Currie is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania's free-market think tank that crafts free market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits and counters attacks on liberty. Leonard Gilroy is director of government reform at the Reason Foundation (www.reason.org).