Though not real excited about what he expects to be a 10 percent cut in the operating budget of the state’s parks and historical sites, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser does see a chance to fulfill a long-held dream to privatize.
Letting private businesses into the public parks, for a price, was a cornerstone of Nungesser’s first, unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 2011 and featured prominently in 2015, when he won. The subject is at the center of his speeches during a recent campaign-style trek around the state.
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Privatizing public parks has been on the conservative Republican bucket list for years. But many balked, not wanting to sully the Sportsman’s Paradise with commercialization and fearing the further Disneyfication of Louisiana’s unique culture.
State parks stayed under the government control during the go-go years of Gov. Bobby Jindal, when all manner of public assets from office buildings to charity hospitals were turned over to for-profit enterprises.
Republican Nungesser sees next year’s “starve the beast” budget Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is set to reveal Friday like a Br’er Rabbit brier patch into which he doesn’t really mind being thrown.
True, the lieutenant governor would prefer the Legislature find a way around whacking another 10 percent off a budget that has gone down from $29.7 million in 2008 to $19.7 million this year. Closures in the short term could undermine the commercial potential in the long term, he said. He needs some time to get these public-private partnerships on line.
Billy Furlow has a secret and he feels guilty about it.
Nungesser is already getting appraisals of property next to Fontainebleau State Park near Mandeville in hopes of putting together a deal with a private developer to build a resort complex on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He’s seeking a private company to build vacation homes on the west side of the lake in Chicot State Park near Ville Platte.
He’s looking at zip lines, boat rentals, stores, restaurants, horseback riding and corporate sponsorships, like naming rights for boat launches.
“There are some real opportunities that we can do without ruining the attractiveness of the outdoorsy-ness,” Nungesser said.
The most popular parks are the ones with splash pads and pools and activities to go along with history and scenery.
Early financials, he said last week, show that in 2017 three of the public parks made money: Fontainebleau, opened in 1942 on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain; Jimmie Davis State Park, opened in 1996 in Jackson Parish and known for champion level bass fishing; and Palmetto Island State Park, opened in 2010 south of Abbeville with moderately priced cabins, 95 camping sites and a water playground in a coastal hardwood forest.
In 2016, only two parks made profits totaling $84,317. Another 20 parks cost taxpayers $5.2 million. The historical sites cost $2.8 million.
Nungesser argues that commercial opportunities could generate enough income to free taxpayers from the responsibility of paying. That’s why he rejects ideas other states are using to secure revenues to operate parks.
Connecticut looked at taxing plastic grocery bags and Texas debated carving out a portion of the sales taxes on sporting goods to raise money for parks. Michigan directs some of the royalties paid by companies developing oil and gas deposits on state lands into a State Parks Endowment Fund.
“Raising fees is like raising an additional tax,” Nungesser said.
Many privatization opponents point to Jindal’s reliance on private profit to extend high speed internet into rural areas — they never did. What happens to parks and historical sites off-the-beaten path?
An example could be Hodges Gardens State Park in Sabine Parish, one of the nation’s largest horticultural displays on a once-major, now little-traveled highway. The family that donated the facility to the public took it back in October after the number of visitors dropped and the state stopped spending the money necessary for proper maintenance.
Louisiana is getting rid of a state park, and officials blame a legacy of budget cuts.
Nungesser says for the facilities that don’t draw commercial interest, he hopes to partner with local governments that benefit from having a tourist draw in the neighborhood. Perhaps, municipal or parish governments could agree to mow the lawn or pick up the garbage, he said.
The counter argument is government exists precisely to handle activities like law enforcement that benefit society but don’t turn a profit. The point of public parks is to give everyday people access to Louisiana’s natural splendor, said state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, whose district once included the now closed Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, east of New Iberia.
“What does it do to economic development when you send a message that you can’t keep your parks open?” he added.
Email Mark Ballard at email@example.com.