August 4, 2012 in City

State parks on their own

Riverside a test site for becoming self-supporting
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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A mule deer wanders near the Bowl and Pitcher campground in Riverside State Park on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

Changes are in store for Riverside State Park as officials scramble to adopt a more self-supporting funding model by 2013.

Lawmakers have ordered the Parks and Recreation Commission to function without any help from the general fund for the first time in the agency’s history, starting next year. The demand punctuates a trend of vanishing state dollars for parks over the past four years.

State funding for parks shrank from $94 million in the 2007-2009 biennium to $17 million in the current two-year budget cycle. Now, officials say, there is no way they can avoid shuttering some of Washington’s 117 parks in the next couple years unless they get a little help from the state.

“There isn’t a parks system in the country that’s 100 percent self-sufficient,” said Riverside park manager Chris Guidotti.

The state’s mandate has launched parks leaders into a search for new ways to attract visitors and private donors while trying to maintain each park’s identity.

“If it’s going to generate revenue, we’re making it more of a priority,” Guidotti said. “The biggest thing for me with this new reality, though, is we can’t sell our souls to make money. People love parks because of the natural environment.”

Michigan, which is similar in size to Washington, has received no general fund allocations for its state parks for the past 15 years, according to a report officials in Olympia released this week. Even so, the parks get by with help from other funding sources.

A portion of Michigan’s revenues from oil, gas and mineral extractions goes toward its state parks. Michigan also has a $150 million endowment for the parks.

The report features a number of suggestions for how Washington state parks can adapt, including creating an endowment fund, getting more help from volunteers to mitigate steep staff cuts and expanding marketing for Discover Passes. The passes sell for $30 apiece for a year of day access, or $10 to visit a park for a single day.

Sales of the passes fell far short of expectations in the first summer. But the report projects sales will rebound over the next two years.

Parks officials plan to ask the Washington Legislature for $18 million in the 2013-2015 biennium, urging lawmakers to heed the consequences of cutting parks off entirely.

Riverside, the second-largest state park in Washington, will be a guinea pig in the parks system’s process of finding a way to survive without state support, Guidotti said.

The park has a number of features that make it a unique testing ground: size, proximity to the urban core of a large city and the vast array of activities the park supports.

“We actually are a pilot for the state in some ways,” said Guidotti. “We’re kind of a model for agency transformation.”

Already, Riverside has begun to raise new revenue through private-sector support. The Friends of the Centennial Trail and the Riverside Foundation have provided some financial backing for the park.

“We just got $20,000 in grants from REI, for example, through those two foundations,” he said.

The park typically operates in the red, spending more than it raises in camping and day-use fees, said Park Ranger Brian Frahm. But Guidotti expects the adjustments will be enough to help it turn a profit, which will funnel money into the system and help less-popular parks.

Riverside hired a program specialist in July to focus on marketing and attract more donors.

Park officials are also putting a strong emphasis on expanding camping and day-use options in a number of ways. In June, Riverside took over management of a Department of Natural Resources campground and a couple of parks with boating sites owned by Avista on Long Lake. Avista still owns the land but pays Riverside staff to manage it and develop more boating sites there.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Guidotti said, “because Avista is mandated under the terms of their license agreement from the federal government to provide recreational opportunities on their properties.”

The acquisitions added at least 2,000 acres to the park, stretching Riverside closer to 13,000 acres, he said.

Also this summer, the park opened a new equestrian campground, with 16 sites and space to tie up horses for the night. There are plans to expand the campground to 20 or more sites soon.

There is even talk about building cabins and bringing Wi-Fi to the park, Frahm said. Though many of the options may not fit within the budget, the essential focus should be on catering to people who want a quick getaway from the city, he said.

“The way we can increase the amount of money we make is to give the people from town the opportunity to get away without really getting away, those ‘staycations,’ ” Frahm said.


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