Posts tagged ‘burney falls’

Last Justification for Closing Private US Forest Service Concessionaires is in Tatters

The last remaining justification that anyone has given me for the need to close privately-funded concession-run parks in the US Forest Service is that the Forest Service must close to all uses on its lands.  But this justification is now in total tatters, making it all the more clear that closure of private concessionaires was an arbitrary and unjustified action.  Here is why:

  • As reported earlier, the US Forest Service is still allowing many recreation uses on its lands.  Individuals can still camp and hike in non-developed areas.  Many US Forest Service campgrounds till seem to be open (example Oak Flats near Globe, AZ).  And many state parks, such as Fool Hollow and Slide Rock in AZ and Burney Falls in CA that operate on US Forest Service land have been allowed to remain open and still use Forest Service land for recreation.  In fact, the only groups that seem to be closed in the US Forest Service are private concessionaires, which increasingly appear to have been singled out for rough treatment by the Administration.
  • We have received emails from the US Forest Service that these closures are required to be consistent with the NPS, but the NPS is allowing its parks to be reopened if they are funded by outside agencies.  Both Arizona and Utah have reached agreements to reopen National Parks in their states through use of state funding.  So why can't private parks on Federal lands be reopened through the use of private funding, which is how we operate anyway?  Its almost as if this Administration has some sort of bias against private activity.

Business Advice: Getting Loans in the Current Environment

I originally started this blog as an advice column for small business, and though I have diverged pretty far from that most of the time, I still like to share some of the things I have learned.

The last year have been difficult for a growing business that needs capital to survive.   A lot of our growth is on leased land in the form of leasehold improvements that revert to the landowner when the long-term lease expires.  This has always made getting funding difficult -- as bankers want to slap  a lien on something -- but of late it has been impossible.

The one exception has been in equipment financing -- I get almost more calls from lenders looking to do equipment financing than I do from companies selling printer supplies.  So I began thinking about how I might be able to redevelop a campground using as much equipment financing as possible.

One large expense in any construction project is rental equipment.  But on this job we have bought a bunch of equipment - up to and including large construction equipment.  We equipment-financed the machinery, the payments on the loans are less than the rental charges we would have had, and we hopefully can sell the equipment at the end of the job if we have no place to redeploy it.

But we still were facing a large expense for buildings.  I asked my equipment finance guy - will you finance a modular building?  "Sure," he says.  So we started rethinking the whole design using factory-built buildings.  We combined three modules to make the store and office:



The entry / gatehouse was entirely factory built:


In another location at Burney Falls, California, we equipment financed 24 cabins by, you guessed it, having them factory built rather than built on-site.  They came out pretty well:



I was really amazed at how well they came out.  Modular has really come a long way.  And since in many locales they are permitted different, some of the paperwork and approvals and inspections were streamlined as well.

Government Licensing = Incumbent Protection

I have written on this topic quite a bit, but via Cato comes another great example of how licensing and regulation, while promoted as consumer protections, much more frequently are incumbent protection against new competitors.  Cato has a video of some folks in Oregon who started a moving business, only to find that sate law effectively requires them to get permission of current moving companies before they can operate  (apparently, someone in Oregon is enamored of medieval guild systems).

How the law works is that when a new mover submits his application for a business license, existing movers can file an objection (which apparently is pro forma).  The new company must then justify to the state why another moving company is justified by the marketplace.  Of course, absolutely no guidance is given how such a thing might be proven.

I would have found this unbelievable, had not my company faced the exact same requirement in another context.  In Shasta County, California, we wanted a liquor license to sell beer at the store we run at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park.  We were told that we could not have a license until we had proven to the County that there was enough demand for another liquor outlet.  It was for our protection, they told me -- we wouldn't want you to get in a situation where you might fail.

I have written about liquor licensing before - if ever there was a regulatory regime whose time was long past, this is it.  The extensive fingerprinting and background checks one must go through to get a license are outdated remnants of a concern for the return of organized crime, a problem that was obviated by legalization  (so that, as usual, the government regulatory regime to fix a problem was instituted at the same moment the problem went away).  Now, the liquor licensing process is used as a club by existing competitors to keep new entrants out.  My bet is that organized crime is now on the other side of the fence, using the liquor licensing process to hammer honest competitors.  And if you really want to see abuse, read the whole Rack 'N Roll saga by Radley Balko.

I bet you are just overcome with suspense wondering if we got our license.  In Shasta County, we eventually succeeded, mainly because the store was in a gated park with an entrance fee, and we could make the argument that competition did not really cross the gates of the park.  Years later, we lost a similar battle in Lake Havasu City, AZ, where a group of local business people have really organized the town to their benefit and use every tool they can, from zoning to licensing, to keep competitors out.

How to Keep State Parks Open in California

Letter I sent to Governor Schwartzenegger in response to his plan to close a number of California State Parks due to budget problems:

I know many people are
probably contacting you to oppose proposed closures of state parks to help meet
budget targets. My message is a bit
different: Closing these parks is
totally unnecessary. 

I own and manage one of the
larger concessionaires in the California State Park (CSP) system. We are the concessionaire at Clear Lake
and Burney Falls. At Burney Falls, for example, we have invested over a million dollars
of our money in a public-private partnership with the state to revamp to the
park. We also operate parks for the
National Park Service, the US Forest Service, Arizona State Parks, Texas
State Parks, and other public authorities.

Traditionally, CSP has
engaged concessionaires to run stores and marinas within parks, but not to run
entire parks. However, in many other
states, our company runs entire parks and campgrounds for other government
authorities, and does so to the highest quality standards. 

So, I can say with confidence
that many of the California State Parks proposed for closure would be entirely
viable as private concessions. For
example, we operate the store and marina at Clear Lake State Park
could easily run the entire park and make money doing so, while also paying
rent to the state for the privilege.

I know that there are some
employees of the CSP system that oppose such arrangements with private
companies out of fears for their job security. But it would be a shame to close parks entirely when an opportunity
exists to keep them open to the public, and improve the state budget picture in
doing so. 

Even if California decides to keep these parks open, I would encourage
you to have your staff investigate the possibility of expanding private
operation of state parks. CSP already
has one of the best and most capable concession management programs in the
country, a success you should seek to build on. The infrastructure is already there in CSP to solicit bids for these
projects and ensure that management of them meets the state's quality and
customer service standards.

Even though everything I said here is true, it probably is a non-starter because most state organizations are dead set against such private management.  They would rather close services to the public than establish the precedent of private management. 

Besides, the whole parks closure may well be a bluff.  Unlike private company budget discussions, where it is expected that managers offer up their marginal projects for cuts, the public sector works just opposite:  Politicians propose their most popular areas of spending (parks, emergency services) for cuts in a game of chicken to try to avoid budget cuts altogether.  As I wrote here:

Imagine that you are in a budget meeting at your company.  You and a
number of other department heads have been called together to make
spending cuts due to a cyclical downturn in revenue.  In your
department, you have maybe 20 projects being worked on by 10 people,
all (both people and projects) of varying quality.   So the boss says
"We have to cut 5%, what can you do?"  What do you think her reaction
would be if you said "well, the first thing I would have to cut is my
best project and I would lay off the best employee in my department". 

If this response seems nuts to you, why do we let politicians get
away with this ALL THE TIME?  Every time that politicians are fighting
against budget cuts or for a tax increase, they always threaten that
the most critical possible services will be cut.  Its always emergency
workers that are going to be cut or the Washington Monument that is
going to be closed.  Its never the egg license program that has to be cut.

Update: Here is the form letter the governor's office sent out in response to my letter:

A weakened national economy and auto-pilot state spending has created a projected budget shortfall of $14.5 billion for fiscal year 2008-09. Although state government revenues this coming year are actually forecast to hold steady, the problem is that every year automatic spending formulas increase expenditures.  Left unchecked, next year's budget would need to grow by 7.3-percent, which is $7.6 billion; even booming economies can't meet that kind of increase.  To immediately combat this crisis, the Governor has proposed a 10-percent reduction in nearly every General Fund program from their projected 2008-09 funding levels.  While these reductions are unquestionably painful and challenging, this across-the-board approach is designed to protect essential services by spreading reductions as evenly as possible.

To achieve this difficult reduction, State Parks will be reducing both its permanent and seasonal workforce.  As a result, 48 park units will be closed or partially closed to the public and placed in caretaker status.  By closing parks and eliminating positions, remaining resources can be consolidated and shifted to other parks to provide for services necessary to keep those parks open and operating.  While 48 parks are affected by closures, 230 parks-or 83% of the system-will remain open.

We must reform our state budget process.  Government cannot continue to put people through the binge and purge of our budget process that has now led to park closures.  That's why the Governor has proposed a Budget Stabilization Act.  Under the Governor's plan, when revenues grow, Sacramento would not be able to spend all the money.  Instead, we would set a portion aside in a Revenue Stabilization Fund to stabilize the budget in down years.  If a deficit develops during the year, instead of waiting to accumulate billions of dollars of debt, the Governor's plan would automatically trigger lower funding levels already agreed upon by the Legislature.  Had this system been in place the past decade, we would not be facing a $14.5 billion deficit. 

As Governor Schwarzenegger works with his partners in the Legislature, he will keep your concerns in mind.  With your help, we will turn today's temporary problem into a permanent victory for the people of California.

Financing Small Business Growth

A while back I wrote a series of posts here, here, and here on buying a small business.  One of the things I said in that post was:

Then, there are the banks. From my experience, it is very, very
difficult to get a bank to make an collateralized loan - i.e. a loan
that is secured only by the cash flow of a company rather than by
assets. In fact, I have never been successful at that. About the only
way that I have found that banks will make a loan is if it is an SBA
loan, where the SBA basically guarantees the loan for the bank. The SBA
goes through cycles of being very open to lending to being very tight.
I have not dealt with them for over two years, so I don't know what
their stance is today. Remember, though, that the SBA is not going to
approve any loan where the buyer has no experience in the industry or
where the buyer is not putting down his own money as well. The SBA has
a lot of information here.

This statement is still mostly true but I have learned a lot over the last couple of months.  The following is an update.

One of the things they tell you all the time in business school, but frankly I always found impossible to really internalize, was how much cash growth takes.  I guess I always thought of businesses with cash flow problems as being unsuccessful, slowly sliding down the drain and trying to make ends meet.  Wrong.  Growth is tremendously expensive.  And stressful.

My business is based on concession contracts.  Each winter, we are usually presented with the opportunity to bid on many contracts.  We narrow the field down to 4-6 we bid on, hoping to win about 2.  One of the things I did last year was greatly improve our standard bid materials, hoping that would help us win good projects.  Did it ever.  We bid on 6 last year and we won 6 (including Burney Falls, Pyramid Lake, and Lake Havasu).  Yea!  But then I began adding up all the investments in new inventory, new equipment, salary (you always have to hire people before the first revenues come in), licenses, building improvements, etc.  Eeek!

After a lot of work with bankers, I stand by most of my statement above.  Most bankers will not lend to businesses on cash flow, and always want some type of collateral (like my home equity).  Over time, though, I have found a few bankers who are willing to lend on cash flow and really understand business growth and why maybe I don't want to have my business's growth rate limited by how much equity I have in my personal home.  There are bankers who will put together packages of long-term loans backed by the SBA plus short term working capital loans that will now let me grow faster.  The folks at Copper Star Bank, for example, have been great. 

One of the reasons I felt the need to post this update is that I have been told that my difficulty finding a good business banker was due in part to my location here in Phoenix.  The Phoenix banking market is very real estate driven, so bankers usually come from that background rather than a business background.  I am told that those of you on the east coast or in the Midwest may have an easier time finding good business bankers.

Postscript: By the way, you might ask how I feel as a small government libertarian about accepting the government subsidy implicit in an SBA loan.  The answer is "conflicted".  Some libertarians are fine accepting government services, on the theory that they certainly have paid for them with all their taxes.  Some try to avoid government services, but that is almost impossible in today's world (such as using government roads).  I generally try to be pragmatic, operating somewhere in the middle.

As far as SBA loans go - I don't know what the commercial banking world would look like without SBA loans.  I think that the banking world would have found an alternative way to mitigate the risk (e.g. via securitization) without the government gaurantee, but we can't know.  The fact is that SBA gaurantees exist and banks would be crazy not to use the gaurantees in making business loans.  So, the reality is, if I want a cash flow based loan for a company my size, it will likely carry the SBA gaurantee.  My appologies to all those whose taxes support my loan gaurantee.