Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser took a gamble and he guessed wrong.
Nungesser is determined to find creative ways to bring the state more revenue through its state park operations, and adding an entertainment hotel complex seemed like a good idea. A $28,000 feasibility study showed that a hotel and entertainment complex at Fontainebleau State Park might bring in about $2.5 million annually, within five years.
Not so fast, said nearby neighbors.
The former sugar cane plantation sits on 2,800 acres on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. It’s a great local resource, and a number of families have been making morning, afternoon or day trips to the park, just about an hour from downtown New Orleans.
During a recent visit to the parish, Nungesser was greeted at the Mandeville Community Center by hundreds of angry people who were there to make it clear that they thought the proposed hotel complex is a horrible idea. There were at least 200 people in the room inside the center and at least another 300 people standing outside. The public might have been better served by a bigger venue.
State parks as a group are one of Louisiana’s jewels. They provide oases for visitors, with some of the best nature, fishing, hiking and relaxation that can be found, and for little or no money. But it costs serious money to operate our parks. Last year, Nungesser was faced with the possibility of cutting off some services and laying off workers before Gov. John Bel Edwards found money and filled a gap.
Parks budgets have stabilized and the parks' financial picture looks brighter. But it is not wrong to generate more parks revenue wherever possible.
When these funding issues have arisen in other states, some have closed campgrounds for the season, limited or closed beaches without lifeguards or stopped mowing grass and maintaining shelters and trails. Louisiana is among the states with the lowest percentage of park-generated revenue, so Nungesser is right to explore creative approaches to fund the parks. Once cabins or campgrounds are better-maintained and put back into service, that alone will generate more money.
Different states across the nation are experimenting with moving state parks away from taxpayer funding, handing over operations to contractors, private or quasi-public operators. If that’s the way Nungesser wants us to go, he should prepare carefully to discuss the pros and cons and avoid a public spanking like the one he experienced in St. Tammany.