Archive for the ‘Arizona’ Category.

Arizona Private Park Operations Case Study

Recently we held a series of fact-finding meetings for Arizona legislators and the executives of Arizona State Parks.  We held the meetings at a pair of public parks that are virtually adjacent to each other in Sedona, AZ.  Both parks are similar in size, facilities, and visitation.  The only difference is that one is operated by the state agency, and one is operated by Recreation Resource Management under concession agreement with the US Forest Service.

The key finding?  While the state-operated facility requires hundreds of thousands of dollars of appropriated money, above and beyond gate fees, to remain open, the privately-operated park actually generates positive cash flow for its agency.

See all the details in this short case study, in pdf format:  A Tale of Two Parks.

Since that meeting, Arizona legislators requested a specific proposal of what Arizona State Parks might be appropriate for private operations, and how much money the state might save.   The summary of our response is here:  Potential Test of Private Operations in Arizona State Parks.

Press Release: A Successful Model For Keeping Arizona State Parks Open Exists … Right Here in Arizona

Download MS Word Version here

Phoenix, AZ – Adopting a public/private management strategy used successfully for decades by The U.S. Forest Service can ensure that endangered Arizona state parks remain open, are properly and professionally maintained, and are available to the public for years to come.

Due to the state budget crisis, millions of dollars allocated for parks operations were diverted to the state’s general fund. As a result, state parks are suffering, and three parks have closed, according to a member of the Arizona State Parks Board.

“We don’t have any money for fixing buildings, or fixing trails, or fixing bathrooms. We are in a desperate situation,” said Reese Wooding, of the state parks board, to the Tucson Weekly.

The fund cuts in the state budget are so drastic that the agency will have difficulty making payroll on July 1. A statement from The Arizona State Parks Foundation says the proposed 3.5 million in sweeps, “May be fatal to a system on the verge of collapse.”

It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Warren Meyer, president of Phoenix-based Recreation Resource Management (RRM), a $10M company that manages public parks and recreation areas throughout the U.S.

“With a public-private partnership model used by the US Forest Service (USFS) for thirty years and in over 40 federally-owned parks in Arizona alone, the government retains ownership of the land and control of the use and character of the park while handing over operational tasks that are time, money, and labor intensive to a more cost-effective private company.”

When operating public parks in these partnerships, private companies typically provide visitor services, routine maintenance and repairs (such as bathroom cleaning), landscaping, trash removal and payment of utilities.

“While these operational tasks by no means constitute all the work required to keep parks open, they account for the vast majority of the money spent by the state parks organization in the field,” says Meyer.

“In these contracts, private concessionaires pay for all these costs solely out of the gate fees paid by the public, without further taxpayer subsidy. We pay the public agency a concession fee of 5 percent to 25 percent of park revenues, often converting a money-loser to a moneymaker for the government.”

In these arrangements, the public agency maintains the land in the condition and character the public expects.

This USFS program is already working in over 40 locations in Arizona,” states Meyer.

“Our expertise combined with an excellent cost position allows us to make the best possible use of the gate fees paid by the public. In the 35 Arizona public parks we manage, this efficiency stretches the gate fees paid by the public so we can continue to invest in needed maintenance and repair.”

“Over the last few years, our company, guided by the Forest Service’s wish lists, have invested in improvements such as new composting rest rooms at Crescent Moon, new shower buildings at Cave Springs and Pinegrove campgrounds, renovations to the Oak Creek Visitor Center, and ADA enhancements at nearly every facility,” says Meyer.

In part because of this attention to keeping facilities clean and in good repair, the public parks RRM operates are consistently ranked among the Top 100 Family Campgrounds in America since 2003, and are recognized as among the best in the state by third-party reviewers such as Sunset Magazine and CampArizona.com.

Many public agencies considering such partnerships worry that this approach might not be applicable to their smaller parks.    Allaying this concern, the USFS in Arizona, in order to keep parks open, is successfully bundling large and small parks together in contracts for a general geographic area. The parks are kept open using economies of scale, where profits from more lucrative properties are passed on to the less profitable locations

“The goal of such concession arrangements,” said Meyer “is to keep these special pieces of land beautiful, accessible and available to the public for generations. The objective is to form a partnership combining the public oversight and unique environmental knowledge of the state parks agency with the efficiency and customer service of a private company that can clean and maintain the parks without the need for a taxpayer subsidy. In doing so, we can help achieve financial sustainability for the public parks system.

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Fact Sheet – Public-Private Partnerships for Parks

How it works

  • The public retains ownership of the land. Private companies must maintain the desired character and facilities in the park. Typical concession agreements include extremely detailed operational requirements and restrictions.
  • The Parks Agency retains responsibility for strategic planning, habitat development and restoration, facilities planning, environmental sciences, rule-making, oversight, and fee approval.
  • The private company takes on operational tasks (from maintenance to bathroom cleaning) that consume much of the state parks budgets but don’t impinge on these strategic tasks.
  • Private company’s expenses, and therefore most park operations expenses, are paid out of park visitor fees without any additional payments from the state. In return for retaining these user fees, the company pays a competitively-bid rent to the state.
  • The state may use this rent to help cover its other expenses, or may reinvest the rent, as does the US Forest Service, in catch-up maintenance and park improvements.

Advantages

  • The substantially lower cost position of private companies allows park operations as well as major maintenance to be performed using existing visitor fees without taxpayer subsidies. For example, the 35 USFS parks run by RRM in Arizona are up to date on their maintenance, while AZ state parks have years of deferred maintenance in their parks.
  • More efficient management also allows for lower use fees – for example, while Slide Rock SP summer day use rates rose to $20 last year, RRM lowered the day use rates at neighboring public parks it operates from $10 to $9.
  • Private concessionaires have incentives that are well-matched to the public – they make money only if happy and satisfied visitors come back to the park. As a result, the parks operated in AZ by RRM receive very high marks from customers and in third-party surveys such as CampArizona.com. In fact, per dollar of revenue paid by visitors, RRM typically has more people actually working in the parks to serve visitors than does most state parks agencies.
  • If the public agency wants to improve the facilities in parks, private companies can be a critical source of capital. RRM has invested in new facilities requested by the US Forest Service in a number of Arizona parks (from shower buildings near Sedona and Flagstaff to completion of the Oak Creek Visitor Center), and have invested more than $3 million across the country helping parks catch up with deferred maintenance and improve the visitor experience.

Even smaller parks can benefit from this model – the US Forest Service has learned to combine small, financially-challenged parks with larger more successful parks -creating regional bundles. There are six successful bundling areas in Arizona to ensure quality management of smaller parks. They are: Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon, Flagstaff, Payson, Mount Lemmon near Tucson, and properties around Kaibab and Show Low. Of the 35-plus sites Meyers runs, only perhaps seven could make money on their own.

“Others make money because they are grouped with other parks,” he said. “In other words, they would lose money as a stand alone but make money in a group because they benefit financially from sharing a manager, equipment, reporting, and excellent operational practices.”

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Documentary on Private Management of Public Parks

Check out this most recent Reason.TV video, which includes your humble correspondent.

Arizona Urged to Privatize Parks

From the AZ Daily Star

The state should pursue more opportunities to turn parks over to private companies, or at least let them operate retail concessions, a panel appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer to study government recommended Tuesday.The initial report by the Commission on Privatization and Efficiency suggested turning more of government over to the private sector. Members also want to push Congress to repeal laws that now prohibit the state from letting private firms set up shop in rest areas along interstate highways.

But state Gaming Director Mark Brnovich, whom Brewer named to head the panel, said this is only the first step. He said the nine-member commission, all handpicked by the governor, is predisposed to believe that if a government service can be privatized, it probably should be.

“Like the governor, members of the commission are strong believers in the free-enterprise system and the free market,” Brnovich said in an interview. “History has shown that the private sector is able to come up with innovative and, very often, cost-effective solutions to problems.”

Brnovich acknowledged that private companies, unlike government, must make a profit. But he said commission members don’t see this as meaning higher costs for taxpayers.

“The free-market system, capitalism, works because folks are forced to come up with better ideas and create greater efficiencies and come up with new innovations,” Brnovich said. He calls it the “Yellow Book test.”

Goldwater Institute on Arizona Parks

Goldwater has another article on funding and management of Arizona State Parks here.

We Are Starting to Get A Little Attention..

From ABC15 in Phoenix:

On another front, legislators on Wednesday heard a privatization pitch from Recreation Resource Management. The Phoenix-based company operates publicly owned campgrounds and marinas in 11 states.

Company President Warren Meyer offered to take over operations of some state parks for a year so they could remain open.

“As a citizen I want to see those parks stay open, and this is my contribution,” Meyer said.

State Parks Director Renee Bahl said private concessions aren’t a “silver bullet,” partly because the system depends on some popular parks to produce revenue to support less popular parks. Land title issues and intergovernmental arrangements also complicate things, she said.

However, “I’d say nothing is off the table and any partnership that we can find is better than a closed park,” Bahl said.

My Interview with Glenn Beck

We discussed my proposal to keep Arizona state parks open. Update: A transcript has been posted here.  Video moved below the fold because it was killing my page load times.

Continue reading ‘My Interview with Glenn Beck’ »

AZ Republic Cartoon

source

By the way, this is a bit unfair.  Even in the private world, sometimes shutdown costs can dwarf first year savings.  In my mind, it just increases everyone’s desire to see that these parks stay open.

My Radio Interview on Arizona Parks

My radio interview with Terry Gilberg of radio 550 KFYI is not available online in mp3 here.   We discuss park privatization in general and my proposal to reopen Arizona parks.

Something of a Breakthrough

The AZ Republic, which editorialized against our parks proposal before they had even seen it, gave us a brief mention today:

Separately, a Senate committee on Monday recommended passage of Senate Bill 1349. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Leff, would allow the parks board to lease the parks to public or private entities without going through normal procurement procedures.

That freedom could allow the parks to be leased quickly.

The lessee, who would be responsible for maintaining the park, could then charge admission fees and earn additional money through concessions.

“I’m trying to find a way immediately to make sure those parks do not close,” said Leff, R-Paradise Valley. “There are private companies that will manage those parks for us.”

Phoenix-based Recreation Resource Management, which operates 175 public parks around the country, has written a letter to parks officials offering to take over at least six of the parks.

This is something of a breakthrough, as our concern all along was that the state would try to ignore the privatization option altogether.  While it shouldn’t be, this is the last thing AZ State Parks wants to do.  However, with their options narrowing, they may be getting down to the last thing.  The outlines of the proposal we made is here.

A Proposal to Keep State Parks in Arizona Open

Due to budget cuts, Arizona State Parks is closing 13 of its 22 state parks.  This last week, I have been making the rounds of the state government, from the state legislature to the head of Arizona State Parks, with a proposal to keep the 7 largest of these closed parks open, and pay the state money for the privilege.  Unfortunately, we have had only mixed success with a proposal that seems to me to be a win-win for everyone.  Our local newspaper editorialized against my proposal, without even knowing the details  (my response here).  So in this post, I am going to give the details of our proposal, and solicit your feedback, especially those of you in Arizona.  All I ask is that you read the whole thing, and not just leap into the comments section having just read and reacted to (positive or negative) this first paragraph about private operation of public parks.

Background

Our company, Recreation Resource Management (RRM), is over 20 year old, and we operate over a hundred public parks under concession agreement for the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, California State Parks, and many others.  Traditionally, park concessions used to be limited to private companies running the gift shop or the bike rental inside a park.  And we do some of that (for example we run the store and marina at Slide Rock and Patagonia Lake State parks).  But our preferred niche has always been to run entire parks on a turnkey basis.  We run a huge variety of facilities that largely parallel anything we might find in the Arizona State Parks system — including campgrounds, day use and picnic areas, boat ramps, hiking trails, wilderness areas and historic buildings.  The largest parks we run are twice as busy as Slide Rock or Lake Havasu and four times as busy as any of the parks we are proposing to manage.  We currently run parks today literally right beside some of these Arizona State parks.  All of this is to say that the parks in Arizona are absolutely normal and typical resources that we manage.

A concession contract works much like a commercial lease.  We sign a contract allowing us to run the park for profit, and then pay the state a rent in the form of a percentage of fee revenues.  The typical operating agreement includes over 100 pages of standards we must conform to, from fee collection to uniforms to customer service to bathroom cleaning frequency to operating hours.

We aren’t trying to take ownership of the land.  We aren’t trying to pave the wilderness.  We aren’t trying to build condos in front of Old Faithful.  We are in fact willing to accept whatever recreation mission or preservation mission the public owner of the park sets and manage the park to that mission. If the site is to remain primitive, we keep it primitive.  If the public agency wants new facilities, we help bring capital investment in new facilities (all approved in advance by the public agency).  What we bring to the table is that in many cases, we can operate the park and keep it open with the fees paid at the gate, without big price hikes and without the need for subsidies.

Our Proposal

At all of my meetings this week I made three offers, each of which we were willing to commit to immediately  (we could actually be up and running with about 21 days notice):

  1. RRM offered to keep some or all of six parks open out of thirteen on the current closure list.  These parks are Alamo Lake, Roper Lake, Tonto Natural Bridge, Lost Dutchman, Picacho Peak and Red Rocks (park but not the environmental center).  Not only could these stay open, but we could pay rent as a percentage of fee revenues to the state, money that could be used to keep other operations open.  While these parks represent about half of the closure list by number, by visitation they represent well over 90% of the closure list.  Combined these parks had a net operating loss of $659,000 to ASP, which we propose to turn into a net gain for the parks organization.
  2. RRM offered to operate five parks that are currently slated to stay open but where we could pay rents that are higher than the net revenue figure ASP showed for FY2009.  These parks are Patagonia Lake, Buckskin Mountain, Dead Horse Ranch, Fool Hollow and Cattail Cove.  Combined, this group of parks lost money for ASP in 2009 which we propose to turn into a solid net gain.
  3. While we would need to do more study, RRM suggested it might take on some of the smaller, money-losing parks beyond those mentioned above if they were packaged in a contract with some of the other parks listed above

To avoid problems with the procurement process, we offered to take as short as a 1-year contract to give ASP time to prepare a longer-term bid process.  We also agreed to maintain all current park fees for the next year without change (in contrast to ASP current plans to raise fees), and agreed that no fee could be changed without ASP approval.  The only help we asked for was

  • We perform rules enforcement, but we need law enforcement backup form time to time
  • We perform routine maintenance and keep the park safe and attractive, but many of these parks have substantial deferred maintenance problems that we cannot take on with only a 1-year contract  (but would be willing to invest capital to repair under a longer term arrangement)

And if the ability to keep almost half the parks slated for closure open was not enough of a value proposition, we proposed one additional benefit.  Any parks that are put under private concession management immediately cease to be a political football.  For years, parks organizations have closed and opened parks in a game of chicken with legislators, with the public as the victim.  Parks under private concession management no longer are subject to such pressures, as they are off the budget.  Back in the 1990’s, when the new Republican Congress squared off with President Clinton over the budget, the government was shut down for a while, including all federal recreation facilities — EXCEPT those under private concession management.  We got calls from the media saying, why are you open?  To which we replied — hey, you have now discovered one benefit of private concession management — the parks we manage are no longer political pawns.

Reactions

So far we have had really good and positive reactions from Arizona legislators  (I have not been able to see any of the Governor’s staff).

The reaction from Arizona State Parks has been more muted.  While they are publicly open to all proposals, in reality this is the absolute last thing most of their organization wants to do  (you should see the body language in some of our meetings, it is a lot like trying to sell beer at a Baptist picnic).  They have not said so explicitly, but from long history with this and other parks organizations I can guess at some of the issues they have:

  1. Distrust of and distaste for private management runs deep in the DNA of the organization.  Many join parks with a sense of mission, seeing unique value to public ownership of parks and lands.  I attempt to explain that this value still exists, that what they are turning over is operations, not management and control, but I don’t get very far.  I try hard to give the new management of Arizona State Parks a clean slate, but I can’t help but be affected by something I saw their previous director say.  Back in about 2004 we hosted a breakfast at a convention of state parks directors up in Michigan, I believe.  Someone must have forgotten to throw us out of the room, because we witnessed the head of Arizona State Parks stand up in front of his peers and demand that they all hold the line against private management as one of their highest priorities.  It was made clear that state organizations that stepped out of line would incur the wrath of other states.  This summer we participated in a series of meetings in California called by Ruth Coleman, who is the head of the parks organization there and someone I admire.  She was trying to break the organization out of its old culture, but it was very clear in roundtable discussions that the rank and file would rather see the parks closed to the public than kept open using private concession management.
  2. I mentioned earlier that private management brings a benefit to the public of keeping the parks from being a political football.  But the parks organization feels like it needs that football.  Without the threat of park closures, it feels like its budget will be gutted like a fish.  And, now that its budget has been gutted, it still holds out hope its money will be restored and needs the park closures to keep up the pressure.  As long as there is even the slightest hope of budget restoration, a hope which I am pretty sure will “spring eternal,” my proposal, no matter how much it makes sense for the people of Arizona, will never be adopted.

Again, these are just guesses.  Renee Bahl of Arizona State Parks has told me they are open to all new ideas, and I will take her at her word.

Libertarian Concerns

Those of you who know me to be a libertarian might wonder how I function in this environment.  The answer is, “with difficulty.”  I have a strong philosophic passion to bring quality private management to public services, and this opportunity is a good one.  And I am not adverse to making money while doing so.  But I am adverse to rent-seeking, and there is admittedly a thin line between trying to make positive change and rent-seeking in this case.

I generally avoid this by insisting on short initial contracts (in this case 1 year) to prove out the concept and to allow time for the public agency to figure out how to put this beast through a procurement process that probably was not well designed for this type of thing.   This is what I did when the US Forest Service approached us with an idea to bring private management to the snow play area at Wing Mountain near Flagstaff.  We took it on a one-year contract (which grew to 2 years) and then the contract went out for public bid  – which we won – for 10 years.  We are very good at what we do and are not at all afraid to compete.  The only time I will not compete is when I perceive someone has a political connection that gives them an inside track.  After two or three losses in Florida counties to a company with no experience but a brother-in-law on the County commission, I realized it was just a waste of time to bid on these situations.

Conclusion

Please give your reactions and concerns in the comment section.  For those who disagree with private management of public resources, I will be honest and say you are unlikely to change my mind, as I have dedicated all my time and my life savings to the proposition.  But you may help me better understand and tailor our service to address public concerns.  I will try to keep the FAQ below updated based on what I am seeing in the comments.  If you are in Arizona and know someone you think I should be talking to, drop me an email at the link above.

FAQ

Does your company take ownership of the park? No.  The parks and all the facilities remain the property of Arizona State Parks.  We merely sign an operating lease, with strict rules, wherein we operate the park, keep the fees paid by the public, and pay the state a “rent” based on a percentage of the fee collections.  Even when we invest in facilities, like this store building and cabins, they become the property of the public at the end of the contract.

How can the state afford to pay you if they have no budget? We are not paid by the state, and receive no subsidy.  100% of our revenue is from fees paid by visitors to the park we operate.  If we don’t run a good operation that is attractive to visitors, we don’ t make any money.

Doesn’t the state lose out if you keep all the fees? No.  Mainly because in all the parks we have proposed to take over, the state has net operating losses of up to $200,000 or more a year.  By taking over the park, their losses go away AND they receive extra money in the form of rents we pay.  We are able to do so because we have developed efficient processes for managing campgrounds and have a flexible and dedicated work force.

Are you going to build condos and a McDonald’s? No.  The fact that this is such a common question is amazing to me, as we operate over 100 parks in this manner across the country and you would not be able to tell the difference between the facilities we manage and any other public park.  Under the terms of our operating contract, we cannot change fees, facilities, operating hours, or even cut down a tree without written approval form the parks organization.

Are you going to just jack up fees? No.  We have committed in our offers to keep fees flat for the next year.  We cannot raise fees without state approval, and we work hard to keep public recreation affordable.  Last year was a very good year for us because, in a recession, our low-cost recreation options gave many families on a budget a chance to have a quality recreation experience.

Why just a one year contract? We would actually prefer a longer contract, as this allows us to actually make approved capital improvements to parks (for example, we have installed many cabins in public parks we operate).  However, we have offered to take these under an initial contract that is just long enough to allow longer-term contracts to be fairly offered on a competitive bid basis.

Maybe no one trusts you because you are small and unproven? Well, perhaps.  But last year our total fee revenue was nearly $11 million, making us slightly larger than the Arizona State Parks system.  We have a proven record with decades of positive performance reviews from government agencies around the country.   For example, for those of you form Arizona, if you have stayed at a US Forest Service developed campground near Flagstaff, Sedona, Payson, or Tucson,  or sledded at Wing Mountain, you probably have stayed in a facility we operated.  We already operate two concessions in Arizona State Parks, and have a great record working with the organization.