HAMMOND — The state's top tourism official told the Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce that private investment is the way to fix the Louisiana's struggling parks system.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser on Jan. 4 said the state's parks have a backlog of about $10 million in needed repairs. Nungesser blames the situation on a move by the Jindal administration that allowed $54 million in funds generated by entrance fees to be used for park operating costs.
In the past, entrance fee money had gone to pay for repairs and maintenance work rather than daily operating expenses.
The change came about as the state has cut appropriations to the parks to about 60 percent of what it was 10 years ago, The Advocate has reported. Gov. John Bel Edwards is planning to release a budget that further cuts park budgets by 10 percent in the coming fiscal year.
"We’re putting Band-Aids on things," Nungesser told a luncheon hosted by the Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce at Southeastern University. "But we’re going to fix it, and we’re going to do it with private-public partnerships."
Nungesser gave as an example Poverty Point, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeastern Louisiana. The site boasts a series of semicircular mounds built and inhabited by hunter-gatherers about 3,400 years ago.
"We need a 'wow factor' at Poverty Point," he said.
Nungesser said his office has asked officials with the telecom company CenturyLink and Louisiana Tech University to develop a plan, such as a new building, virtual reality experience or a phone app that people can use to learn about each part of the Poverty Point site.
"And then we’re going to ask CenturyLink to pay for it and call it, 'The World Heritage Site in Louisiana Sponsored by CenturyLink,'” he said.
He acknowledged in an interview later that the move might be seen as overly commercial, but he is hoping naming rights could lead to a project that greatly improves visitors' experience at the site.
The lieutenant governor also said he's talking to companies about building a resort and conference center next to Fontainebleau State Park in St. Tammany Parish.
In addition, he said, a horseback riding operation has been successfully recruited to Bogue Chitto State Park in Washington Parish, and a zip line company is interested in installing in other parks.
He encouraged the the Tangipahoa Parish business people gathered to consider partnering with the state on other park projects. He said the recently created Culture, Recreation and Tourism Foundation will be used to hold money raised in these business ventures and keep that money for use in the parks.
Nungesser said that in the current budget climate — Louisiana faces a $1 billion revenue shortfall — tourism will have to take a backseat to education, healthcare and roadwork.
But he noted that tourism brings about $1 billion in revenue annually to Louisiana, with tax dollars totaling about $600 per resident each year. He highlighted a number of initiatives his office is undertaking to make the state a better destination.
Nungesser said has hired four new staffers to develop more local tourism, including by getting New Orleans visitors, especially international ones, out of the French Quarter and on a bus tour around the state. Another initiative he touted is designing more byways to get people to explore small towns.
Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise also spoke at the event about his recovery from getting shot playing a congressional baseball game last June and what he expects tax reform to do for Louisianians.
Scalise said his work on the tax overhaul that passed in December began in the hospital room, where he worked on passing a budget that would allow for the tax bill.
He argued the bill should lower tax rates for all residents and make businesses more competitive. Democrats have argued against the bill, saying the bill favored corporations and the wealthy.
Scalise cited Gnarly Barley Brewing in Hammond, which he visited prior to the luncheon, as an early example of the tax bill's successes.
Brewery owner Zac Caramonta told the Advocate in an interview later that the bill is a win for his business because of a narrow provision that cuts in half the federal excise tax on each barrel of beer small brewers produce.
He said the tax cut is making it possible for him to give his ten employees health insurance, a decision he was wavering on in advance of the bill's passage due to cost. He said he plans to invest any additional savings into making more beer, which could ultimately lead to more hiring.
Caramonta said he had not read the rest of the tax bill and was unsure how it would affect his business.