The Kentucky Department of Parks is poised to allow private corporations to develop at, or even operate aspects of, state parks, and expansion of previous efforts permitting commercial activity.
Parks Commissioner Elaine Walker suggested to a state legislative committee Thursday that General Burnside State Park, a 400-acre park 10 miles south of Somerset, could serve “as a potential pilot” for the effort.
Walker briefed the committee on the park system’s fiscal outlook amid efforts to control growing operating costs—which have prompted some lawmakers to consider privatization efforts on their own—and offered a broad outline of the department’s plans.
“I’m not sure I’m a big fan of the term ‘privatization,'” Walker said. “What we’re looking at is public-private partnership.”
Walker said that the department is in the process of drafting a request for proposals from private companies to build and operate commercial facilities, including a new lodge. The requests could potentially include permitting a company to take over Burnside Island’s 18-hole golf course and to perform maintenance duties, Walker said.
“We can’t afford to build a lodge at Burnside,” Walker said. “However, we believe that there may be an interest in building a 50-room lodge that would be of tremendous benefit … they could build it, they would operate it, they would maintain it, and then give us a check for a certain percentage.”
Walker said that the department has identified other parks that could follow Burnside Island, including the potential for constructing new convention centers to boost attendance of existing lodges. She did not identify which parks are being studied.
State Rep. Tommy Turner, a Somerset Republican, chided Walker for leaving him out of the development process. He said he heard rumors from constituents about such a plan.
“The ones of us up here representing these people are not part of those meetings, and that’s pretty troubling to me,” Turner said.
Park funding increased in the biennial state budget enacted and revised this year, from about $80.2 million in 2012 to $81.3 million in 2014. It’s projected in the 2016 budget for $83.7 million.
State park revenue for the past three years has been about $48 million annually, according to the parks department.
Previous rounds of cuts reduced park personnel and operating hours to balance tight budgets in the wake of the 2008 recession. The cuts ultimately led, in 2010, to limited privatization efforts proposed by the department, including privatizing 18 formerly public golf courses.
During the 2014 General Assembly, debate ensued over a bill introduced by Republican Reps. Kenny Imes and Richard Heath. House Bill 117 would have permitted the state to lease tracts of park real estate to private companies for the purposes of commercial development to offset the maintenance and personnel costs.
“I see we are serving the public much better, you’ve got better facilities, better accommodations, more going on around it, where they can come in for family or business organizational meetings,” Imes told Kentucky Public Radio in January. “And I just see it as an expansion of the original concept of the park.”
Imes withdrew his bill following criticism led by Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, over concern about the bill’s lack of protections for state park workers’ jobs. Walker said that the current program under development would include protections for state park workers.
The legislature also passed a bill this year that would allow dry counties in which state parks are located the option to vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on parklands.
About a dozen states permit some form of park privatization scheme, including Tennessee, Florida and California.
In 2012, the California legislature avoided the closure of 70 state parks by entering into public-private partnerships with groundskeeping companies like American Land & Leisure, which assumed the bulk of personnel and maintenance costs for six state parks. A 2012 report by the legislature’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said privatization would save the state tens of millions of dollars annually.
According to state budget documents, the parks system in Kentucky provides “overnight lodging to 425,000 guests, food service for 1,175,000 meals for dining patrons, camping for 470,000 guests, golf for 210,000 players, along with other park amenities and activities.”