After years of budget cuts, greener outlook for Arizona State Parks

[Source: Cortney Bennett, Cronkite News Service]– After years of delivering deep cuts, lawmakers this session are discussing ways to give Arizona State Parks some more money and bring back a lottery-funded grant program the agency administered.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said there seems to be a core group of representatives who are concerned about funding state parks properly. “It is a pleasure to come to the Legislature this year and see several bills that are supporting state parks instead of the opposite,” Bahr told a House committee recently.

HB 2621, introduced by Rep. Juan Carlos Escamilla, D-San Luis, would establish a voluntary fee that owners could pay when registering vehicles. The House Agriculture and Water Committee unanimously approved the bill Feb. 19. “Our state parks are a lot of times our economic tool for small, rural areas,” said Escamilla, whose district includes two state parks. The fee, which under the bill would be set by the Arizona State Parks Board, would provide 85 percent of total proceeds to Arizona State Parks and 15 percent to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Bryan Martyn, executive director of Arizona State Parks, said Escamilla’s bill would help the agency, which operates primarily on gate fees and since 2009 has received no general fund appropriation. “Make no mistake, Arizona State Parks is a business,” Martyn said. “And we have to search every day to try to figure out how to fund these state resources.”

Cristie Statler, executive director of Arizona State Parks Foundation, an advocacy group, said money generated by the fee would help parks with operations and maintenance. However, she said, it doesn’t solve the agency’s need for sustainable long-term funding. Statler noted that many of the state’s 30 parks currently rely on partnerships with nearby municipalities and nonprofit organizations. “Cities and towns cannot sustain these partnerships,” Statler said. “Their revenues have been stripped as well. What we’re doing is passing this obligation from the state to these cities and towns.”

Bahr said that in the past the Legislature has seemed to view state parks as an expendable luxury. She said the Legislature should come up with a sustainable revenue stream. “These are important assets that protect amazing cultural and biological resources as well as help to sustain many rural economies,” Bahr said.

Joseph Garcia, communication director for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said it’s encouraging to hear discussion about finding a funding mechanism for state parks that are operating on shoestring budgets. “But if we’re really talking about improving and preserving state parks so they’re more visitor-friendly, then that needs an investment,” Garcia said. The Morrison Institute published a 2009 study that found Arizona spent less on its park system than nearly any other state when viewed as a percentage of the overall budget. “It’s sad that with all the money and energy thats been invested in state parks they’ll close or deteriorate or people won’t visit them because they don’t have modern amenities,” Garcia said.

Meanwhile, HB 2594, sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, would among other provisions reinstate the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund, which used Arizona Lottery proceeds to provide grants for park programs, trails, historic preservation, environmental education and related projects. Arizona State Parks used some of the money for acquisitions and improvements. Arizona State Parks and the Arizona Game and Fish Department had received up to $10 million annually before the Legislature eliminated the Heritage Fund in 2010.

The House Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources endorsed the measure Feb. 18, forwarding it to the Appropriations Committee. Janice Miano, director of administration at the Arizona Heritage Alliance, said communities across the state would benefit from reinstating the Heritage Fund. “Every community in Arizona has received at least one Historical Fund grant over the last 23 years,” Miano said. “It’s certainly an economic engine for the rural communities. It brings in projects that wouldn’t normally be funded.”

Statler said that access to parks in terms of affordable entrance fees could be jeopardized if Arizona State Parks doesn’t receive adequate funding. “You can’t jack up the fees so much that the public can’t visit these parks that are state-owned assets,” Statler said.

Meanwhile, Martyn, the agency’s executive director, said he’s happy that Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget included Arizona State Park’s requested operating budget of $21 million along with $2 million in Arizona Lottery proceeds for capital improvements. “The onus still is on us to demonstrate our value added to Arizona,” Martyn said. “Arizonans have to believe in state parks if we expect them to contribute.”

 

Audit: Arizona state parks need more funds, visitors

[Source: Yvonne Wingett-Sanchez, The Arizona Republic] – The future of Arizona’s state parks is at risk, a new audit says, and their long-term financial sustainability depends on expanded partnerships and marketing efforts.

An Auditor General’s Office report released Wednesday portrayed the parks system as in dire need of funding. The Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer cut funding to about $25.7 million last fiscal year from about $54.7 million in fiscal 2008, the report said. The audit also found that low and declining visitation was among the factors that pose long-term risks for the parks. Auditors recommended the Arizona State Parks Board, which manages the state’s 30 parks, continue to expand partnerships with local governments and organizations and create a new marketing campaign to showcase the parks. Auditors also said the board should study how the parks system can become more financially sustainable.

The 30 state parks cover a total of 62,000 acres, with 28 percent of the land owned by the state and 72 percent leased or under easement from federal and state entities. There are four types of parks, ranging from environmental-education parks such as Boyce Thompson Arboretum to recreation areas such as Kartchner Caverns. About 2 million people visited the state parks in fiscal 2011, the report said.

Cristie Statler, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Foundation, said the audit results were no surprise given years of deep budget cuts to parks funding by the governor and lawmakers. “They swept entrance fees, gift-shop money, donations, as well as eliminated the $10 million annual Heritage Fund allocation to state parks,” she said. Statler pointed out that, time and again, surveys say Arizonans overwhelmingly support state parks and open spaces and believe such areas add to a region’s economic health. “The only reason we have state parks open right now is because partners around the state, municipalities and non-profits, have supported … a huge number of state parks — about 19 across the state,” Statler said. “Were it not for these partnerships — I kid you not — these parks would be closed.”

In some partnerships, for example, cities will agree to share certain park expenses. Statler said she understands the need to continue to expand such partnerships but questioned auditors’ recommendation of a marketing campaign. “If you don’t have money, how can you promote the parks?” she asked. “To admonish the state parks board or direct them to continue to expand partnerships is to relinquish any state responsibility for the state’s park system.”

The audit also found:

• Arizona has one of the lowest number of park visits among Western states, and state parks compete with many national and local parks for visitors.

• The loss of state funding for park operations has created a need for the system to transition from being supplemented from state coffers to earning enough revenue to cover its own operating expenses. Historically, park revenue has not covered operating expenditures, until recently.

• The board has taken steps to increase revenue, including adding electrical hookups at campsites, an improved reservations system and a new fee schedule that charges lower fees to attract campers during the off-season and higher fees when sites are at a premium.

Small cities struggle with historic preservation efforts

[Source: John Yantis, AZ Republic] – The wrecking ball often swings faster in smaller cities trying to save history, preservationists and local leaders say. Money, know-how, constantly changing priorities and new residents with shallow roots in the community often hinder efforts to protect historic architecture and cultural sites. The dilemma leaves longtime residents disappointed and frustrates efforts to save local landmarks.

In June, former students failed to save an auditorium-turned gymnasium in Litchfield Park. Constructed in 1928, the gym was a reminder of the city’s early days. A month later, Buckeye officials voted to demolish a cotton gin that was also built in 1928. After the decision, a town councilman wondered aloud why Buckeye bothers to advertise its historic past. “The gin is just a rusty building,” said Councilman Robert Garza, a fifth-generation native of Buckeye. “But it is part of our heritage.”

Preservation can present challenges in larger cities, too. In Mesa, organized efforts to save historic sites began in the mid-1990s, but advocates said they only came after the city lost numerous noteworthy buildings, including a social hall, park and school.

Impediments to saving history in smaller cities are usually more acute. They often start too late. “It can happen at all different levels, but I think small communities haven’t spent a lot (of) time inventorying,” said James Garrison, state historic-preservation officer.

“They’re interested in growth and new things and attracting businesses and doing all these things and often don’t take a look around at what might fit a new use or be available for adaptive reuse.” Adaptive reuse is a process that allows older buildings to be used for new purposes while retaining their historic features.

Many large cities have preservation officers and commissions that allow experts to plan and look for properties that could become endangered, Garrison said. Smaller towns’ historic sites often go vacant, which escalates the cost to fix them up. Buildings left empty deteriorate quickly and are often vandalized. Also, often there is little practical discussion about what they will be used for. Every property can’t become a museum, but these sites still need an active life in the community, Garrison said.

Financial challenges – Preservation efforts in Arizona were recently complicated after a state-funding source dried up. In 2010, the governor and state Legislature stripped a portion of Arizona’s Heritage Fund that provided $1.5 million in grants for cities to find, preserve, stabilize and rehabilitate buildings and other historic sites. The fund was made up of lottery proceeds approved by voters in 1990.

The Arizona Heritage Alliance and others are working to restore the fund, which is administered by the Arizona State Parks Board. The Arizona Preservation Foundation, a group of volunteer preservation advocates, did not gather enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot. They plan to get the issue on the ballot in 2014.

As public money for preservation becomes more scarce, some cities have unsuccessfully tried to find private financing. In Goodyear, a years-long effort to restore the Litchfield Train Station is taking a new direction after backers had difficulty raising enough money through raffles and car and train shows. Members of the city’s Centennial Commission decided in May to form a non-profit foundation, said Wally Campbell, a city councilwoman who serves on the board. Supporters hope the foundation will qualify for grants. Someday, foundation officials hope it will be part of a train park for children. “We’re excited about it, but we’re moving forward slowly,” Campbell said. The 1,900-square-foot station was built in the 1920s by the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 2009, the city moved the depot 3 miles from its original location, to an area near the intersection of Cotton Lane and Maricopa 85.

Ever-changing plans – In Buckeye, evolving city plans have frustrated historic-preservation efforts. For years, informal town plans called for turning the Eastman Gin into a museum and downtown gateway to showcase the area’s agricultural heritage. Town officials spent more than $2 million to buy the gin and surrounding property. In the end, renovating the landmark, which was once used to separate cotton from its seeds, was too costly. Demolition is expected to begin in early September. For Garza, it was the latest example of shifting priorities. “It’s hard because Buckeye went through a giant boom, and we had a big influx of people from outside,” he said. “They didn’t necessarily see what we saw in our community, in our history, in our culture.”

Successful saves – Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, says there is greater awareness about the importance of historic preservation in smaller cities. Officials and the public are more focused on sustainability and adapting buildings to be reused, he said. Old Main, a 90-year-old vacant building on Peoria High’s campus, will be saved. About $1.6 million will be spent to save the building.

Phoenix has used bond money to renovate many historic structures, McPherson said.

And earlier this month, Litchfield Park struck a deal with the school district that will ensure the protection of a mission-style church built in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, some historic sites in small towns can’t be saved, McPherson said. “We hurt every time that happens because that’s one more strike against our heritage in a state that’s relatively new,” McPherson said.

Voluntary fee for Arizona state parks off ballot

[Source: Jim Cross, KTAR] –Arizonans will not get the chance to vote on a voluntary fee to fund the state’s parks. The campaign to put the issue on the ballot ran out of money to hire paid circulators and fell short of the number of signatures needed.

The initiative would have asked voters to approve a $14 surcharge, added to the cost of each vehicle registration fee. That surcharge would have been voluntary and drivers would have to opt out by checking a box on the renewal form to avoid paying for it.

Christie Statler with the Arizona State Parks Foundation said Arizona’s parks are not in immediate jeopardy, but if the state raids the parks budget in the future, they will be. “This park system is a house of cards and could fold,” she said.

Lawmakers have refused to provide tax dollars to support the park system and took some of the money parks raised from admissions to help balance the budget in recent years.

A 2009 task force’s report to the governor said the parks system is threatened with extinction and cannot survive under a roller-coaster funding system. Statler said it was true then and and it is true now. “We have watched legislative sweeps that have reduced the ability of the park system to function,” she said. “All it would take is another sweep of funds to reduce the park system entirely. They’re operating on dental floss.”  Statler said the state parks system pumps about $250 million into the Arizona economy each year.