Trust the Wall Street Journal to wait until California is close to finalizing park rescue bids from private companies to wade into coverage of pending state park closures here. There are - what - 50-odd deals at this point? (30 signed, and 25 in the works, according to Ruth Coleman on KQED's Forum last week, but sources tell the Journal and KQED even more deals are on the wing.)
Nonetheless, it's a good story by Max Taves. This would be the state parks agency's first corporate agreement of this kind, under which American Land & Leisure Co. would take over operations of three state parks for five years: all concessions, visitor services, security - even legal liabilities. Even so, the state still owns the parks: Brannan Island, Woodson Bridge and Turlock Lake. Another three parks, according to the Journal, are also slated for private management: Castle Crags, Benbow Lake, and Limekiln.
"I'm not aware of any state that has concessioned the entire operation of a park to a commercial company," said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, a nonprofit funded by state parks.
Other cash-strapped states have discussed putting their parks under private management but then not gone through with it. Facing the possible closure of 13 of its 30 state parks, Arizona in 2010 considered auctioning off park management to private companies, said its parks director, Bryan Martin. But the state "was able to engage" cities, counties and tribes to manage the parks, he said.
Something like that is happening here, too. Last minute negotiations of all kinds are proceeding at a breakneck pace across California. But despite the sense of urgency, with July 1st and the new fiscal year just weeks away, the deals have to pencil out for all sides involved.
Revenue generation is a vital priority for every kind of would-be park rescuer - and there's widespread agreement many of the state parks at risk of closing are at risk because they have not done well with revenue generation. In many cases, for things as basic as parking fee collection.
The nonprofit California State Parks Foundation is in the process of doling out a bunch of small grants ($6,000 or less) to help various groups address the logistical problems and deferred maintenance that stand between parks and revenue generation.
Speaking of the rescue/reprieve deals with the state, Foundation spokesman Jerry Emory says a couple are putting parks on a path toward long term financial stability. But the rest of the struggling parks, he says, are at risk of closing next fiscal year. Or the year after that.