SPI President & CEO Mary Scott Nabers

SPI President & CEO Mary Scott Nabers

Local, state and national parks have great value and are recognized as high-dollar public assets.  Parks are attractive aspects of any economic development effort and they draw tourists, local residents and the traveling public at-large. Their appeal is often the “tipping point” for corporations making relocation decisions and parks attract families to housing or retail developments.

According to Resources for the Future and the National Association of State Park Directors, public parks cost about $2.3 billion to operate, but provide 720 million people with at least $14 billion in the form of recreation.

Budget woes and slashed spending have forced many states to reduce their financial commitments to parks.

The funding that is available for parks has become hard to come by and often controversial because parks generate revenue from admissions and other concessions. There are some who argue that parks should all be self-funded.

Unfortunately, parks continually need restoration and repair. Fees and concessions will never cover those costs, so a number of innovative funding options are being explored and tested.

A number of states have developed universal passes to all park facilities within the state. Idaho has done something a little different. The state lowered the price of the season pass by $30 – from $40 to $10 – and the new, lower cost is offered to residents as they renew driver’s licenses. At the old price of $40, about 15,000 residents purchased the season pass each year. But, at the new low price of $10, almost 100,000 people purchased the park passport. The significant increase in passes sold boosted revenues of the park department by more than $1 million.

Michigan tested a similar model. Park passes were promoted to motor vehicle registrants. For the model to be successful, the state needed to sell passes to at least 17 percent of those registrants. Officials were more than pleased when 27 percent of the people purchased passes to Michigan’s state parks. Now, according to the chief of parks and recreation, the state has a new goal – to attract 50 percent of all vehicle owners to state parks by selling them “recreation passports.”

Kansas and Washington have similar programs. Montana, however, made the park fee compulsory.

Another possibility for park funding involves public-private partnerships (P3s). Last month, the National Parks Service (NPS) broke ground on a Collection Preservation Center at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The NPS facility will preserve 418,000 artifacts and 1.3 million archival records documenting the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and four other NPS areas in East Tennessee. Private donors and federal funds financed the $4.125 million facility.

It’s obvious that American ingenuity is going to prevail and public parks will be preserved. Travelers and tourists will be granted access to some of the finest examples of American parkland in spite of funding cuts and controversy. That is a very good thing!

Mary Scott Nabers

As President and CEO of Strategic Partnerships, Inc., Mary Scott Nabers has decades of experience working in the public-private sector. A well-recognized expert in the P3 and government contracting fields, she is often asked to share her industry insights with top publications and through professional speaking engagements.