Privatizing parts of N.J. park system stirs debate

Lou Valente, chief project adviser forthe DEP.
Lou Valente, chief project adviser forthe DEP.
Posted: January 22, 2012

A chain restaurant in Wharton State Forest. A Ferris wheel at Liberty State Park. Weddings, flea markets, and corporate events taking over New Jersey's historic sites and scenic lands.

That could be the future if the state goes forward with plans to privatize parts of its park system, some warn.

"Next thing you know, you have to pay more for everything and the public's access is limited," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. "You'll be getting fee'd to death."

The state has a different vision. Lou Valente, chief project adviser for the state Department of Environmental Protection, foresees parks that retain their character while better serving the public, cost less to operate, and generate more revenue.

Private entities would provide lifeguards, event-planning, boat rentals, enlarged food service, even small stores with camping supplies. Nonprofits would take more responsibility for interpretive programs, freeing up DEP employees for other duties.

The changes, made public in October, will be implemented gradually, officials said, as part of a long-term strategy to keep the parks open by making them more self-sustaining.

The criticisms "have no connection to what we're doing," Valente said.

"We're planning substantial change by 2015," he said. By then, 38 percent of the system's budget would come from deals with private and nonprofit entities for things such as the concessions at Liberty State Park, installing solar arrays on parkland and continued leasing of four state-owned golf courses.

Eventually, the state would like two-thirds of the system's annual operation budget to come from outside sources.

"Some people may want McDonald's," Valente said. "We don't. But giving people something to eat? That's fair."

Food service is already at most parks, he said. "There are hot dogs and hamburgers. We'd like to go more broadly than that."

The state doesn't want to compromise the system's integrity, said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. "There's no talk of Applebee's at every park. There won't be neon signs along the trails.

"We want to bring the parks into the 21st century," he said. "People come to the parks for nature and history, but that doesn't mean we can't offer them something to go with it."

A record 19 million visitors were drawn to 440 acres of state parks in 21 counties last year. The system takes in 500 miles of hiking and riding trails, 10 miles of beaches, and 39 recreation areas, along with 50 historic sites.

But it is "at a crossroads" and "very expensive to run," said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. The state spends $40 million a year on the system that generates $8 million in revenue.

At Atsion Lake in Wharton State Forest, a nonprofit is expected to take over lifeguard duties this summer, while also offering swimming lessons and exercise classes - for a fee.

The state would pay the nonprofit about what it has paid 85 full- and part-time lifeguards, but the park superintendent would no longer have to spend time hiring the guards.

Changes involving food services, touring, and event planning will take longer since the state must request proposals.

The problem, Tittel said, is "what happens down the road when private vendors take over park functions. They're not professionals and don't have the same level of caring for the parks," he said. "Who's screening them? Will valuables walk away?

"Then, there's the loss of access," he said. "If you can make more money on a Saturday afternoon renting out a park area, then the public doesn't have access."

The state could "bring in franchises that are detrimental to the theme of the park, like skeet-shooting, private golf courses, an amusement park, or a hotel catering hall," Tittel said.

Instead, he said, the state should raise money by taxing all-terrain-vehicle usage and collecting lease payments on existing parkland rentals, such as those owed by utility companies.

"I see positive and negative possibilities" in the state's proposals, said Linda Stanton, a member of the nonprofit Batsto Citizens Committee Inc., which provides financial support and interpretative services for the site.

"If the state works with the [park] friends groups . . . that's appealing," she said.

"I don't think the state wants the golden arches and frat parties at Batsto Village," Stanton said. "If you provide more consumer services, that would make for a more pleasant experience. The concern is that it could get too commercialized."

The challenge will be in the details of contracts and leases.

"You could have a nice wedding [at Batsto] with 30 or 40 guests, but that's a lot different than having one with 500 guests," Stanton said. "It affects the visitors at the park, the parking, set-up and clean-up. It's all in the details, and that's why people have concerns."

Such issues will be taken up when the state contracts companies to handle event planning, state officials said.

"I get requests from people to come into our parks and most are within their mission," Valente said. "There's no reason why someone shouldn't use some of the grounds at Wharton State Forest to have a wedding.

"But if someone wants to have an outdoor event now, we can't do it" because there's no staff to make the arrangements.

The number of parks workers dropped from 549 in 2000 to 407 today; the number of park police officers dropped to 86 during the period, down from 126, Ragonese said.

Part of the state's strategy to stretch resources can be seen in the leasing of four state-owned golf courses, which freed up DEP employees for other duties. The agency already partners with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, which conducts programs at Island Beach State Park in Ocean County, Allaire State Park in Monmouth County, and Spruce Run State Park in Hunterdon County.

"The effort now is to find new and better ways" to do the work of the parks, Ragonese said.

While other states have closed parks during the economic downturn, "our priority is to keep them open and make them work," he said.


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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