[Source; Megan Neighbor, The Arizona Republic] – In the depths of the recession, state budget cuts made it seem almost certain that the gates to manyArizonaparks would remain padlocked. But local communities and non-profit organizations have banded together to keep 14 of the state’s most financially vulnerable parks open by providing more than $820,000 to the cash-strapped Arizona State Parks agency.
For example, the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the towns of Payson and StarValleyare helping provide $35,000 in funding to the namesake park inGilaCounty. Through a contract with Santa Cruz County, the Tubac Historical Society is helping keepTubacPresidioStateHistoricPark’s doors open by providing both funding and operational support.RedRockState Parkin Sedona is being aided byYavapai Countyand the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park. All but one of the state’s other 13 parks remain open, albeit seasonally in some cases, because they take in enough revenue to stay in the black and fund their own operations.
Local authorities and non-profits say they decided to cast a financial lifeline to the more vulnerable parks because they recognize their value – their rich history, intense beauty and, perhaps most importantly, their economic impact. Today, less than two years after major closures seemed certain, 26 of Arizona’s 27 parks are open, although many have abbreviated schedules [to read the full article click here].
Arizona officials might turn over management of two small state parks to private operators so they can reopen the sites that were closed because of budget trouble.
The 28-park state system already uses concessionaires to provide some services but now may go further by turning to the private sector for the actual operation.
The parks system has requested proposals due Sept. 23 for operation of Oracle State Park in southeastern Pinal County and is considering whether to issue a request for proposal for Lyman Lake in southern Apache County.
Ultimately that could result in the parks being operated by private companies, parks Executive Director Renee Bahl said Wednesday.
The move is being viewed with some skepticism by at least one potential bidder.
Arizona lawmakers wrestled with parks-related funding issues throughout their 2010 session, ultimately passing legislation specifically authorizing state officials to contract with public, tribal and private entities to operate parks.
Recreation Resource Management, a Phoenix-based company that operates campgrounds and marinas in about a dozen states, in February offered to take over operations of some Arizona state parks for a year so they could remain open.
Parks officials did not reject the request outright but said privatization was not a “silver bullet.” Instead, they have turned to cities, counties and other public entities, reaching agreements that help pay for continued state management of certain parks and management of others by non-state public entities.
Now, nine state parks remain open under state management, while seven others are being operated by state employees through partnership agreements. Five others are being run by other public entities and six are closed.
Partnership agreements haven’t proved to be feasible with all parks, including Oracle and Lyman Lake, said Renee Bahl, the parks system’s executive director.
“We weren’t able to find a solution for the public sector,” Bahl said of Oracle, which is located near a small unincorporated community of the same name and which closed in October. “Everything is on the table right now. We want the parks to be open for the public and the economy too.”
However, a Phoenix-based company that operates parks in about a dozen states and that previously offered to run some Arizona parks to keep them open to help out the state expressed only cautious interest in bidding to operate Oracle.
“The Oracle RFP is pretty thin gruel,” said Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management.
The park has many restrictions that appear to undercut its value as a “good commercial opportunity,” particularly as a stand-alone project without opportunities to spread overhead costs over several parks, he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
However, Meyer said RMM still might bid to operate Oracle to pre-empt any strategy by parks officials to undercut privatization efforts.
Meanwhile, Cindy Krupicka, president of a booster group for Oracle State Park, said she’d welcome privatization. “I’d just like to see the park open,” she said.
APACHE COUNTY-Lyman Lake will again be closing down on Sept. 7, but this time there is good reason to believe that it will open again next summer. Rumors have circulated that the park will close down permanently after Labor Day, or be sold to a private company. Those rumors are not true, according to both the County and the State Parks Board.
“The county is willing to do whatever we can to keep Lyman Lake open,” said county manager Delwin Wengert. “It will take a group effort and we will work with the Parks Board and the communities of Apache County.”
During a phone interview with Assistant Parks Director Jay Weems and Public Information Officer Ellen Bonnin-Bilbrey on Aug. 24, it was made clear that the Parks Board does not want to permanently close Lyman or any of the State Parks and they are also committed to “looking at all possibilities” to keep Lyman Lake open. Even if it means operating it on a seasonal basis, which is not something that the Parks Board has done with any of the State Parks up to this time.
Lyman Lake is not actually totally owned by the State of Arizona. Lyman Water Company, the Arizona State Land Department and the Bureau of Land Management all own part of the property. No State Park has been ever sold, nor is it considered possible to do so under the state Constitution.
Weems said in the interview that if Apache County had not come forward with the $40,000 it raised, drastic measures would have been needed to shut it down.
Lyman Lake is considered a “high maintenance” park in that it is in a remote location and runs it own water and waste treatment facility, and its own law enforcement with the help of the Sheriff’s Department. Weems said they anticipated spending about $100,000 during this summer’s season. Of that amount, $75,000 is needed for staffing and the rest for utilities and supplies.
So far this season, the Park has brought in about $70,000 and with the money donated by the county, will break about even.
Weems said the Park made about $6,000 over the Memorial Day Weekend, which is $3,000 more than last year and $2,000 more than in 2008. During the month of June, the Park brought in $18,000, which is about $2,000 less than in both 2008 and 2009. July brought in $29,000, the same as in 2008 and $6,000 more than 2009. August is projected to be the same as both years at around $14,000.
Weems also stated that the arrangement with the County is unique, but has been done with other communities.
PIO officer Bilbrey said that the economic impact to the County from visitors to the area is over $2.5 million directly and over 35 jobs are provided by the impact. Bilbrey has been working vigorously promoting Arizona State Parks to the rest of the world and states that more visitors are needed to help the rural communities and their parks.
The Parks Board has budgeted money to leave one law enforcement officer at the Park over the winter to protect the park and its artifacts. Negotiations will start soon with the County and possibly a private company to operate it next year. Many people thought that Lyman was closed this summer. In fact, Bilbrey said that many people thought all of Arizona’s Parks were closed and there needs to be a concerted publicity effort to get the word out which will bring in more visitors.
Lyman Lake will be open through the Labor Day weekend.
[Source: Tammy Gray-Searles, Navajo County Publishers] — The early shutdown of campgrounds at Arizona State Parks is likely a foreshadowing of things to come for several parks across the state, including Lyman Lake and Homolovi state parks. Regardless of the final outcome of the state budget, which was still not finalized as of press time Wednesday, the Arizona State Parks Board will be forced to make painful budget cuts. Reducing costs by closing at least eight state parks is still at the top of the list, and was scheduled to be the topic of a July 2 work session.
According to state parks spokesman Ellen Bilbrey, board members were not expected to take action at the work session, but instead were to determine exactly how to proceed when they hold their next regular meeting on Monday, Aug. 3.
The July 2 agenda called for the board to meet in executive session “for legal advice regarding strategies necessary to balance the budget including, but not limited to, spending reductions, staff layoffs or reductions in force, transferring expenses to alternative funding sources, suspending grant payments, suspending FY2010 grant cycle, park closures, reduction of hours/days of operations, deferring parks capital projects, furloughs, salary reductions, spending reductions…” Public discussion was scheduled following the executive session.