The state is putting finishing touches on contracts that will allow private companies to operate their businesses in state parks and at historical sites.
The first rollout of private offerings is expected to begin in coming days, said Gene Reynolds, who oversees the state’s 21 parks and 19 historic sites. The announcement should include the small and expected businesses: horseback riding at Bogue Chitto State Park near Franklinton; canoe rentals at Fontainebleau State Park near Mandeville and Tickfaw State Park near Springfield; ice sales and souvenir shops at most of the parks.
Food trucks and zip lines are on the way as are pontoon boats.
“We have about 25 partnerships that we will be ready to pull the trigger on very, very soon,” Reynolds told The Advocate last week. He was reluctant to identify specific vendors because the contracts, which, although approved by Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, still need to be vetted by the Division of Administration before they can be finalized.
Reynolds said he and his staff looked at the business plans, checked the financing of the companies and went to look at the sites to see how the vendor would fit in. Contractors also must agree to a list of restrictions and pay a fee that would go into a fund for park maintenance and operations.
The contracts would allow private vendors to operate within a park. He did not entertain any proposals that would turn over operations of the entire park to private entities.
About 30 states turned to outsourcing in reaction to decreased appropriations. Thirty-five campgrounds in Arizona state parks are run by a private business. The Natchez Trace State Park near Wildersville, Tennessee, contracted with a private company to run the restaurant, and host meetings and weddings.
Five Georgia state parks are wholly operated by a private company, though they remain the property of the state and are funded by taxpayers.
Private operators can raise fees for activities that are free now but save the state money through personnel costs — salaries and benefits account for almost 70 percent of Louisiana park system costs.
Several of those that contracted or sought to contract entire park operations, like Pennsylvania and Tennessee, ran into a buzz saw of public opposition arguing that monetizing public parks limits who can enjoy the natural splendor. Oklahoma authorities are seeking to investigate the private contractor running a park in that state, according to media accounts.
A Tennessee State University study found that privatization didn’t always raise the money expected and concluded “privatization of facilities in state parks is not a widely successful public policy.”
Reynolds said Louisiana’s plan is to keep privatization within narrower limitations than what some other states have done.
He received about 100 proposals, some of which were rejected out of hand, like renting go-karts. Others are still receiving serious consideration, like a rum distillery; a hotel at Fontainebleau; a lazy river at Sam Houston Jones State Park near Lake Charles; and a convention center.
Restaurants could be in the offing, but Reynolds said more effort needs to go into seeing what the impact would be on nearby establishments.
“It should go a long way to putting the parks in the black,” Reynolds said, adding that privatization will provide the money to maintain state parks in the coming years and, perhaps at some point in the future, make the parks self-sustaining.
“It could raise, well, we really don’t know how much,” Reynolds said. “The ranges are from a few million to $150 million. We’ll have to see. But we can say it’ll fund parks like they’ve never been funded before.”
Billy Furlow has a secret and he feels guilty about it.
Six months ago, Reynolds was reviewing lists of which parks to close — about half of them — and which employees would receive pink slips — 102 out of 199. All the historical sites were slated to be closed. Only three of the 21 public parks made money in 2017. State appropriations have been decreasing for years — down from $29.7 million in 2008 to $19.7 million last year, with an additional 10 percent budget cut being proposed for fiscal year 2019.
Because this year’s budget was not cut and reparations from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill arrived, some repairs were done. Two closed parks with overnight cabins — the parks’ biggest money makers — were reopened. The number of visitors increased by 5 percent and revenues went up to $11.9 million from $9.5 million, Reynolds said.
There’s enough money this year to replace sewers, a $5.5 million cost, and about $11 million to repave roads, he said.
Beaches are being cleaned up with sand being reclaimed and raked at Grand Isle State Park, Bogue Chitto and Fontainebleau as well as a number of parks that are centered on lakes.
The Grand Isle State Park was moments from being closed in late June. Now, it’s getting a $6.1 million facelift.
Letting private businesses into the public parks, for a price, were cornerstones of Nungesser’s 2011 and 2015 campaigns for lieutenant governor.
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. Go…
Since winning in 2015, Nungesser has barnstormed the state arguing that developing underutilized land in state parks would generate badly needed revenue for the underfunded park system. As the state’s chief tourism officer, state parks fall under his purview.
"We’re putting Band-Aids on things," Nungesser told a luncheon hosted last year 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. ... There are some real opportunities that we can do without ruining the attractiveness of the outdoorsy-ness."
HAMMOND — The state's top tourism official told the Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce that private investment is the way to fix the Louisian…