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State Parks Seek Corporate Donors to Stay Open

One of the few remaining commercial-free zones in the country may need corporations to close budget gaps.

In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The goal was to put young people back to work by preserving the country’s natural heritage. One of the defining projects of the CCC was the nation’s state park system, a network of hundreds of parks designed to provide people of all incomes access to nature.

Almost 80 years later, the Great Recession has undone much of that legacy. Facing severe funding shortfalls, park agencies around the country are struggling to maintain facilities and programs, and to even stay open altogether. Among the hardest hit are Washington state, where parks lost all of their general fund support this year, and California, where 70 of the state’s 278 facilities are slated to close this fall.

In an era marked by extreme austerity, state park managers are adopting a variety of conventional strategies to keep their historic greenspaces operational: raising user fees, laying off staff and relying more heavily on volunteers. But increasingly, parks are charting new territory -- by looking to corporations to help close the budget gap and sustain a business-oriented governance model.

In New York, for example, Nestlé’s Juicy Juice contributed $350,000 to build playgrounds in seven state parks. In California, Coca-Cola and Stater Bros. Markets have raised about $1.9 million to support reforestation and other state park preservation efforts. And in Georgia, Verizon Wireless contributed $5,000 to cover the cost of park passes for the state’s annual Free Day at the park. Most of these efforts come with recognition -- on a playground sign, on a park pass -- of the corporation’s contribution.

This corporate participation should not be confused with philanthropic giving, says Shari Boyer, chief executive of Government Solutions Group, a California firm that brokers deals between corporations and state parks.  “These are partnerships,” she says. “The corporation has to get something out of it.”

So far, many states are still in the initial stages of the partnership process: educating the public about budget shortfalls, seeking out potential corporate donors and trying to figure out what exactly constitutes an appropriate relationship between a profit-driven company and a public agency that oversees -- at least for now -- one of the few remaining commercial-free zones in the country. Such deals are unlikely to provide a long-term solution to budget woes, park directors emphasize. Instead, the push to locate company dollars is best understood as part of the new, bottom-line approach to state park management.

“We have restructured our entire agency to become more business focused,” says Becky Kelley, director of Georgia State Parks, where state funding plummeted from $24 million in 2010 to $10 million this year. That restructuring entailed laying off staff, exploring the transfer of lodge operations to private concessionaires, and more recently, exploring corporate sponsorships. “We are transitioning from parks stewardship managers to parks business managers,” Kelley says. “It’s a major paradigm shift.”

According to the National Association of State Park Directors, people make 730 million annual visits to state facilities, about two and a half times as many visits as to national parks. Those figures underscore the value of state park assets to the public -- and to marketers, who consider such visitors something of a captive audience. “State budget crises have brought the issue of corporate sponsorships to the forefront,” says Boyer, whose firm has brokered about $7.5 million in such deals since 2004 -- $5 million generated in the past two years.

On the consumer side, Boyer adds, the rise of “cause marketing” -- in which companies link the purchase of a given product with a donation to a social or environmental cause -- is also fueling the new alliances. Companies are targeting cause marketing toward local, instead of global, initiatives in part because of the recession.  “Instead of giving to the Amazon,” Boyer says, “people want to give to state parks.”

As companies and parks explore what are supposed to be mutually beneficial relationships, one of the key challenges is identifying brands that reinforce the park mission. “The product and placement need to be conducive to the natural setting, heritage, recreation or natural use,” says Jennifer Blazek, communications manager for Idaho State Parks and Recreation, an agency that lost 80 percent of its state general funding -- about $15 million -- this year. Following several waves of fee increases, Idaho’s Board of Parks and Recreation recently authorized park staff to research potential corporate partnerships. “They weren’t willing to give blanket approval to any policy,” Blazek says, “but we will pursue opportunities and bring them back to the board for review.”

Blazek cited a recent proposal by Merrell, the outdoor apparel company, to provide a 40 percent discount on ranger uniforms -- bearing company logos -- as an example of a partnership that would have been a “good fit” with the parks’ mission. (The company ultimately decided not to participate in the bidding process.) Like many state parks, Idaho contracts with Government Solutions to print visitor information guides and pamphlets -- a partnership that saves about $10,000 on printing costs, says Blazek, who has put that money toward creating educational materials for fourth-graders.  “It helps me stretch my budget,” she says. To make money, Government Solutions sells ads to run in the visitors’ guides.

Despite the vetting, many of the partnerships seem, perhaps not surprisingly, to be more about money than products that support park objectives. As part of California’s Preserve Our Parks fundraising campaign, for example, Coca-Cola donated $1 for every $10 in product sold at participating retailers, while the Stater Bros. supermarket chain solicited $1 contributions. Asked how Coke products intersect with California’s state park mission, company spokesman Bob Phillips said Coca-Cola’s support of park restoration is part of its “live positively” platform, in which “sustainability is part of everything we do, particularly in this time of cost cutting and downsizing.” Phillips rejected the idea that Coca-Cola products were not in sync with parks’ health and environmental missions, noting instead that state parks “provide opportunities for people to be physically active.”

Besides earning the goodwill of employees and customers, what do companies receive in exchange for financing state park programs? So far, most “corporate reward” programs are limited to small logos or acknowledgements on park interpretive signs or promotional materials. In Virginia, for example, Dominion Power recently donated $150,000 for projects at the Lake Anna, First Landing and Leesylvania state parks. About 150 Dominion employees and retirees are also building fitness trails and will refurbish an amphitheater and trail boardwalk. In return, trailhead signs will acknowledge Dominion’s support, says Joe Elton, director of Virginia State Parks and president of the National Association of State Parks Directors.

But, he adds, as park agencies become more desperate -- and as acceptance of corporate sponsorships moves from “low to universal” -- such forms of advertising could become less subtle. “If a corporate citizen wants to put their name on a park, I think that could happen,” he says. “If someone wants to lease and operate a park, I think that could happen.”

More specifically, it could happen in California. “Right now we are open to entertaining all potential proposals to keep parks open,” says Brent Reed, deputy director of partnerships and consumer strategies for California State Parks. Companies tend not to want to underwrite park operations, he says. “But if there’s a gift on the table to take one park off the closure list, we will consider that.”

Over the past five years, corporate sponsorships have raised about $6.5 million for California state parks. By contrast, contributions from nonprofit groups total about $50 million, and the value of volunteer hours clocks in at about $100 million. Other states report similar budget breakdowns. “Corporate efforts are insignificant compared to other kinds of stakeholder support,” observes Elton. For her part, Boyer agrees parks will never be able to raise enough money through corporate sponsorships alone. “It’s not the solution,” she says.

Then what is? Boyer and others say state parks will be sustained by a variety of privatization and streamlining efforts. In Georgia, for example, where the state park agency is under a mandate to become financially independent by 2015, the agency is planning to hand over operations of select parks to local communities, which view the parks as an economic engine. Farming out golf courses and other concessions to the private sector is another option, Kelley says.

The private citizen will also bear more of the cost, most notably in Washington state. As of July, the park system will be supported entirely by user fees: $30 for an annual fee, $10 for one day.

Whether those efforts will support or undermine what Elton refers to as “the great experiment that came out of the Great Depression -- an affordable place for the common man to relax,” remains to be seen. As Georgia parks move from a public service to a business model, “the key is remembering our mission is the preservation of natural resources,” says Kelley. “We hope to maintain services at a high level, but we realize that a major change has occurred.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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