Total Frustration With Arizona Parks

For the last year, I have watched in total frustration as Arizona State Parks threaten closure after closure to fix budget problems.  This is, of course, when they are not begging for new taxes to be dedicated to them.

For those who don't know, my company is in the business of privatizing public recreation.  At the moment, we are so swamped with requests from public authorities to keep parks open that I don't really bother going out and seeking new business.  But it is frustrating for me as an Arizona resident to know that many of these parks could remain open  (and user fees kept reasonable) under some sort of private concession management.

I know this may seem weird to you given that I work so much with governments, but I have no idea how to lobby government.  Unlike, say, John Murtha related enterprises, we get all the business we need simply responding to inquiries from public authorities who need help and submitting proposals in response to RFP's**.  In fact, if I had to lobby to keep the business running I would shut it down first.

So I have had no idea how to approach those involved in the Arizona parks debate to tell them there are alternatives.   I get frustrated each day as I see folks in the parks organization tell the media that private management would not work because none of their parks would make good business opportunities, when I know for a fact this is not true  (I operate stores in two of the parks and am familiar with several others, and have sent them unsolicited management proposals to run these parks -- again, I am not necessarily seeking the business, but I want to give the lie to the statement that private companies would not be interested).  Interestingly, two of the largest private recreation managers in the country are located in the Phoenix area, and neither of us have ever gotten a media call on this issue.

Of course, I am not completely naive.  I know there is a tried and true kabuki dance here where parks departments threaten to close down the Washington Monument in a bid for public sympathy that will either deflect budget cuts or spur new taxes.  I also know that state parks directors have sworn a blood oath together never to let private concessionaires run whole parks, even if the parks have to be shut down  (our company runs whole parks for folks like the US Forest Service and TVA, but most state parks only let concessionaires run the store or marina, not the whole park).  I know this anti-private law of omerta exists, because our company once sponsored a breakfast at a national state parks directors conference and we were in the room (unknown to the speakers) when this no-private-company discussion was held.

I have called and sent letters to nearly everyone in the state, but have not gotten any response.  To assuage my frustration that no one is even reading them, I will reprint one here just to say that someone, even if it is a reader in Australia, actually looked at it:

Janice K. Brewer, Governor;   Reese Woodling, Chair, Arizona State Parks Board; Maria Baier, State Lands Commissioner; Rene Bahl, Arizona State Parks Director

Many of the state parks currently proposed for closure could easily be kept open to the public under private concession management.  I run one of the larger operators of public recreation concessions in the country, and our company is the current store and marina concessionaire at Patagonia Lake State Park and Slide Rock State Park.  I know from experience both with public recreation in general as well as with Arizona State Parks that these parks (as well as many other in the ASP system) could easily be operated by a company like ours, retaining high quality recreation options for the public while converting a liability for the state into a financial asset.

For years we have urged the management of Arizona State Parks to consider private operations of more than just the stores in these parks.  For example, we operate whole parks turnkey for the US Forest Service, the National Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the United Water Conservation District (CA), and the Lower Colorado River Authority (TX).  By operating the park to high quality standards but at a lower cost, we are able to make a profit for ourselves and pay an annual rental fee (usually contracted as a percentage of sales) to the government authority that owns the park.

I find it tremendously frustrating that the private concession option has not even been put on the table for discussion, or gets sloughed off with tired clichés such as "private companies would just put up a McDonalds."  When we operate any public park, we operate under a strict and detailed operating agreement, typically running over 100 pages, that sets procedures for everything from bathroom cleaning frequency to approvals for fee changes.  We operate busy day use facilities such as Grasshopper Point and Crescent Moon along Oak Creek in Sedona side by side with Arizona State Parks at Slide Rock, and we maintain these facilities in at least as good a condition, while keeping fees to $8 (vs. $20 at Slide Rock) and still paying rent to the USFS for the concession.

I am not looking for any special consideration for our company.  I know such contracts must be competitively bid and we don't shy away from such competition.  However, I know that the management of Arizona State Parks has, for whatever reason, been resistant to the idea of private concession operations of entire parks, and I was afraid that this option may not have been presented to you as a viable alternative to closing these facilities.

I would be happy to discuss private concession management any time with you or your staff.

Sincerely,

Warren Meyer
President

Postscript: Interestingly, the most open state parks director to these ideas was Ruth Coleman in California.  Contrary to what one might expect, California State Parks is actually one of the more innovative and creative parks organizations out there in terms of privatizing certain functions and seeking private capital  (Texas, on the other hand, is one of the worst --  go figure).

Ms. Coleman was very supportive of our making investments in California Parks (example:  Cabins here) where no other park system has been so open.  She was nice enough to allow our company to sit on a panel of folks looking at potential solutions to the California Parks budget issues.  But her organization was openly hostile to any private participation, and essentially said they would rather see parks closed than remain open under private management.   For example, here was probably the most supportive comment we got:  "Well, I guess I could accept some private companies in the parks as long as we didn't allow them to make a profit."  Again, that was the least hostile statement.

**Footnote: The typical lifecycle of this business is that a public agency runs to us begging to take something over to keep it open.  We do so on a quickly negotiated contract, and then find ourselves spending a ton of money to fix all the deferred maintenance problems left by the public agency.   About when we finally get the place cleaned up and public trust restored and finally have the prospect to make a little money at the location, the public agency decides it is time to seek competitive bids.  Everyone who refused run the place when it was a mess now come out of the woodwork to bid on running the facility now that its fixed up, several of whom seem to have oddly close relationships with senior officials of the public agency.  We bid, some of which we win and some of which we lose.  If we win, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  If we lose, we shrug and try again.

  • Donald Anderson

    Thank you for sharing what some businesses try to hide.

    Re your lifecycle footnote: I was co-owner of a small local airline in Zambia in the late '70s & 80s.("AirVania",in reality a charter service that kept trying to build scheduled operations). We'd expand charter service to a remote town until we had full, regularly scheduled flights & then the Govt would pull our route permit and make it part of their nationalized airline -- only to have it fail(for many predictable reasons). Then they'd give us back the route and we'd build it up again. Government!

  • perlhaqr

    “Well, I guess I could accept some private companies in the parks as long as we didn’t allow them to make a profit.”

    Man, what the fuck is wrong with these people? They'd rather see the facilities shut down than take the chance that someone, somewhere, might make money running them, even if the cost to the end-user was lower overall, and even though someone making money implies the payment of taxes, which is how they get a paycheck. If they really hate people and parks so much they want to see them closed and unusable, they should find another line of work.

    ----

    I've never done this, so I have no idea how hard it is, but maybe you should look into making an appointment with the Governor. Then you know for certain that he's heard that this option exists. And hopefully he won't be as anti-market as those idiots from CA.

  • Jakob

    Why not make yourself a non-profit, just give your former owners a job with salary equal to what the profits where. If you are the only owner even easier.

    I think you'd have a much easier sell. We aren't an evil for-profit corporation, we are a friendly non-profit here to help out where we can.

  • Ian Random

    Simple get some news coverage locally in a major city. Hopefully, get some people whining about the park closure and then have them say it doesn't have to happen, but nobody is returning your phone calls at the state.

    As an aside, you really should lock in longer term contracts like a decade. Reminds me of the grazing permits when they spanned years, there was an incentive to invest. But when the duration was shortened, they grazed to the point of destruction to get their money out of it.

  • Doug

    Get to know your local and state representatives. The ones around here usually want to hear from their constituents. It could take a long time, though. However, the state and county employees aren't going to like it very much.

  • Kranky

    Here's the reader from Australia you were waiting for.

    Obviously, the traditional way of getting government to listen is to make some big campaign contributions or hire some politicians to sit on your board . . . but you don't need the business that badly. [Same difference for a NFP structure -- you need to hire some useless political hacks and play the fake charity game to get government money.]

    On the flip side, I'd ask whether it's worth antagonising the state administration (ie the ongoing public servants) by pressing politicians on the issue at a time when you evidently don't have a real opportunity for getting the business. After all, public servants tend to stay for whole careers, not just elected terms, and they'll be able to use public money and time to undermine you. Which is exactly what they'll do once their political bosses start demanding briefing papers and talking points to defend against comments in the press.

    What you might consider is to find a line into the current opposition party and subtly work that angle until the next election. Of course, that depends entirely on whether you can stomach them or any of their local candidates.

    Barring that, you wait until the problem grows too large for them to ignore, then step in as usual.

    It's a rotten old business, isn't it?!

  • mcgoo

    Another Aussie who read your letter!

    Public sector employees typically react with great hostility to normal people who go to the politicians to seek answers. By "normal" I mean people without political or union connections. Statements along the lines of "all will not go well for those who ....." are quite typical.

    FWIW - here in Oz most public sector employees seem to consider that "profit" remains a (very) dirty word. They typically operate within a personal world-view that says that they would get paid much more in private enterprise, and would do the job much better than those already there. However, they choose to labour mightily for the "common good".

    The view that private enterprise might be allowed to do something, with profit, that is currently undertaken by unionised public sector employees is anathema.\

    I have had public sector employees tell me that they expect/require us to make losses on government contracts, as part of our "contribution" to the greater good.

    Stay away from them if you can...

  • Tractordriver

    Another Australian reader, Also a native from Arizona.

    I really think its sad that the USA and State of

    Arizona has come to what it is. I enjoy the Coyote,

    keep up the good work Warren. USA and AZ need more like

    you!

    Tractordriver

  • http://lorenzo-thinkingoutaloud.blogspot.com/ Lorenzo (from downunder)

    Me also a reader from Australia :)

    Actually, I am part-owner of a (very) small business that puts on medieval and ancient days for schools, so we deal with "government" also, but on a very petite, local teacher level.

    Love your blog.

  • Jay Ziemann

    Warren:
    Lets get together, (as old friends over a beer?), and I can share in many of your frustrations and elucidate on some of our constrictions. Jay Z.

  • TakeFive

    So how much for you to run the Grand Canyon? Just a round figure will do.

    I visited the canyon this past summer, and I have to say the entire operation seemed very well run. Probably because it's one of the more popular parks and generates a lot of cash. But the rooms, transportation, and facilities were all top notch. Pretty suprising for a gov't operation.

  • http://smilerz91.blogspot.com Chris

    Why not just a simple letter to the editor. It can even be dual purpose - rail on the paper for not doing any fact checking and put lie to the "private business isn't interested" canard.