For those who may be interested, we are having a one-day conference on public-private partnerships for park operations on November 7 in Reno, Nevada. The US Forest Service and those of us in the business have gotten a lot of inquiries from recreation agencies over the last year or so. These folks are trying to keep parks open despite declining budgets.
The USFS figured out a way to do this over 30 years ago, and only now are other agencies starting to copy the model (California State Parks just started using it this year, for example). The USFS, like most agencies, charges a fee for the public to visit certain parks or to use campgrounds. They found that they could not cover their high operating costs with just these user fees, and so had to use a lot of general fund money to keep the parks open. Many complain that public recreation user fees are too high, but typically they cover only about half the agency's costs to run the park. When general fund money started to go away, the USFS faced park closures, exactly the situation today in many state and local parks agencies.
The USFS found that private operators with a lower cost position and more flexibility could keep these parks open using just the user fees, and in fact actually pay the USFS some rent. So instead of having to subsidize the park's operation with tax money, the parks began to generate funds for the USFS.
It took decades to get this right. The USFS made mistakes in how they grouped parks into contracts, how they wrote the contracts, and how they did oversight. The private companies made operating mistakes and some failed financially at awkward times, since when this program started there did not exist a pool of experienced operators. But over the years, many of these problems have been worked out, and most privately-run sites operate to a standard at least as high as publicly-run parks. Here in Arizona, three of the top five highest-rated public campgrounds are operated by private companies in the USFS program.
At this conference, both private operators and agency people experienced with this model will describe how it works as well as years of hard-won lessons learned.
The conference is free to most government agency officials, academics, and media and we have obtained a really inexpensive $49 hotel rate (since by definition the agencies most interested in the model don't have much money). The web site that describes the agenda and logistics is here. Readers of this site who don't fit one of these categories but would still like to attend can email me at the link in the above site and I will get you in.