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West Virginia lawmakers to privatize state parks, attempt to solve funding woes

Is privatizing state parks a good idea? It’s apparently an attractive concept for some state legislators.

The House of Representatives in West Virginia just passed a bill that would allow widespread privatization of state parks in that state. Legislators see it as a way to get needed infrastructure and improvements added to state parks without the huge expense.

Privatization has been considered in West Virginia before. In 1994, the legislature was well on the way to approving privatization before a huge public outcry killed the move.

The proposed bill would allow private contracts of up to 50 years and provide for private funding for construction and new facilities like RV parks and equestrian centers. One concern for West Virginians is that the bill doesn’t restrict what private corporations can do. Some fear they’d add casinos, racetracks, amusement parks or fast-food outlets since nothing in the bill prevents such development.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t

Privatization of state parks can be a godsend for some locations. The State of Alabama closed Roland Cooper State Park in 2015 amid budget cuts. A concession company called Recreation Resource Management (RRM) won a contract from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to run the park on the agency’s behalf.

RRM was able to refurbish the 236-acre park at its own expense and reopen its campgrounds, cabins and bathrooms in 2016. The park now operates in the black and actually makes money for the state of Alabama.

Warren Meyer, who runs Recreation Resource Management, says it’s easy to find win-win situations for concessionaires and state parks.

“We’re being asked to come in and provide the capital to refurbish the campgrounds or provide amenities that governments can’t really appropriate,” he said. “We like the parks; we’re not trying to turn them into McDonald’s or used car lots.”

Many states contract with private companies for portions of state park operations, such as bathroom maintenance, souvenir sales or boat rentals. Some states allow contractors to take over completely, sometimes even selling public land to private companies.

That was the case in Oklahoma in 2008, when that state sold most of the popular Lake Texoma State Park to a developer who planned to construct a lakeside resort.

The state got $15 million and was out from under the park’s huge level of deferred maintenance. The developer, however, never came through with the resort, and the area lost a tourist attraction.

State parks are under pressure from the burgeoning number of new campers, and many states aren’t up to the task of operating the parks and making necessary improvements. Some experts claim the maintenance backlog alone could total at least $95 billion at a time when allocations for state parks are being cut.

Private companies are obviously interested in making a profit when they take over a state park, so it’s to be expected that rates for most services would increase as these companies invest in needed improvements.



Finding the balance in privatizing state parks

Privatizing state parks may be the only course in many states. Some states, like Michigan, play it both ways. That state has privatized some services such as food and boat rentals, but retained control of campgrounds and other essential services.

“We want to create a park atmosphere and not one of over-commercializing,” said Ron Olson, who is in charge of Michigan’s state parks. “In our systems, we have things that people enjoy that aren’t directly related to a revenue stream. … Our places that do very well, we could raise the fees and do market-based pricing, but it would price most of the public out of the market.”

It’s too early to tell how the latest privatization effort in West Virginia will turn out, but it’s worth watching as state officials across the U.S. try to find ways to keep state parks open without totally ceding a public asset to private corporations.

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Les Reid
6 months ago

A State park in Stone Mountain Georgia was privatized with a lease over 10 years ago. We stayed there in it’s last year as a State park. Always wondered how is working. Great park but was obviously in need of repairs put off for many years under State operation.

Tim
6 months ago

Hold on to your wallets.
Once something is “privatized” the price goes up. The “middleman” now has to take his cut of taxpayer dollars for himself first and foremost.
Then what’s leftover gets invested back.
Sounds like somebody is paying back for political contributions.

BILLY Bob Thronton
6 months ago
Reply to  Tim

Notice the article didnt mention if the camping fees increased. Next time, give us that little morsel of information. Overall, you would have to see how the deal is structured, but i do see your point on the middleman.

Anybody who reads this forum seen where this has benefited the taxpayers of their respective state.

MrDisaster
6 months ago

Privatization is not the answer. That indicates a transfer of ownership of a public resource. Once gone it will never come back to public ownership. Contracting out management, and improvements can make sense if the contracts are set for specified times and timelines for specified improvements. Improvements would have to be made in compliance with a master plan for the park. It can work. Many State and National Parks are managed by concessionaires now.

BILLY Bob Thronton
6 months ago
Reply to  MrDisaster

I doubt the land was deeded over, more like a contract to operate said facility.

Martin
6 months ago

Government workers get paid the same whether they do their job or not. That is the downside. Private companies do the bare bones minimum with profit as the primary motivation. That is also a downside.

BILLY Bob Thronton
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin

Martin, you mean to tell me that when you drive by a public works project, say a waterline being repaired, that the guy in the hole being watched by four other guys leaning on their shovels isnt efficient, come on man!

Deborah Mason
6 months ago

I’ll never forget the first time I pulled into a national park campground that had been turned over to a concession. I felt betrayed. Hurt. Offended. That weekend went downhill from there. That was in 1979.

Don
6 months ago

This is a good thing. There is very little that a government can do as efficiently and effectively as the private sector.

FDajnowicz
6 months ago
Reply to  Don

Privatization Never makes things cheaper. Companies will never run a business that cannot make a profit. Like privatizing prisons. The only way it can make money is charge the state more to run the prison or cut back on what you provide for prisoners or force prisoners to work on things like chain gangs. So campers and visitors will now be charged more and be given less. The state is going to let the private business make the money. Is the state going to give the tax payers a cut in what the state will save in NOT funding the parks? The park users are going to be the losers because there will never be any improvements done to the park.

Rosy
6 months ago

How much is a State Park, a City Park, any park worth? Everything is for sale if the price is right and the coffers are empty. Or if the the seller or investor can convince you that you will benefit in any way. What to do, what to think, whom to believe? What seems perfectly clear to one is questionable to another. Someone sees black, a neighbor sees white. John Q. Public wants more and wants it for less. Time for the idle majority to go to work. Time for the privileged few to stop selling anything and everything and get in the trenches. What is good for you might not be good for me. But one thing is for sure, everyone has to work at something in order for everyone to benefit. Just saying folks.

Dennis E Prichard
6 months ago

So did Oklahoma get the property back at Lake Texoma? This article just says the company flaked out on the deal. If the State kept the money, did they use the $15m for park improvements/upkeep for future years? I bet not. It most likely went for more pork in other areas of the state’s budget.

Drew
6 months ago

I think the private operation makes sense. I’ve seen good examples of it out here in Ca. There are many improvements that some of these companies can afford to do that states would have a difficult time accomplishing. Besides, If you’ve got more skin in the game you’re likely to do a better job.

Bob p
6 months ago

Maybe the example given about OK was because the politicians didn’t think through their decision like the Washington crowd does, just jump in without checking to see if water is in the pool.

DonA
6 months ago
Reply to  Bob p

The Washington crowd think?? Since when? Dream on.

BILLY Bob Thronton
6 months ago
Reply to  Bob p

Bob, you said that to stir us all up now, didnt ya.

Jesse Crouse
6 months ago

Better know who you are dealing with first. They must be “vetted” first from what they have done in the parks and comerical venues they already have. And set up front what they can and cannot do. Our stat and national parks should not be for sale.

Rik
6 months ago

The word privatization makes me cringe. The Chicago parking meter fiasco is one of the worst examples of it. I hope the lawmakers think this through, and don’t just do a quick cash grab. The smart thing to do would be to contact other states to find out what has worked and what hasn’t. Given that many West Virginians aren’t exactly awash with cash, it’d be a shame if they were priced out of using their parks.

Billinois
6 months ago
Reply to  Rik

Same with the Indiana Tollroad mess.

Snayte
6 months ago
Reply to  Billinois

Read about the Chicago tollway sometime.

BILLY Bob Thronton
6 months ago
Reply to  Rik

Chicago is the cradle of corruption. Ask Blago. Hey, come to thinkmof it, wasnt their a politician from Chicago that ended up in the…….

Ron
6 months ago

Welcome to corporate greed and higher prices

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