News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Joey Holleman, The State, Columbia, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 12, 2004 - It's not hard to find precedent for privatizing public park accommodations, an issue raised for S.C. parks in Gov. Mark Sanford's budget recommendations.
Most National Park Service hotels always have been operated by private concessionaires. On the state level, Georgia has tried privatization of its lodges with varying degrees of success.
In South Carolina, however, the individual parks operate their own campgrounds and cabins. If you want to reserve a cabin at Table Rock State Park, you call the park.
Sanford thinks that should change. His budget recommendation calls for savings of $1.4 million by privatizing the operation of the cabins, campgrounds, restaurants and golf courses now run by the park service. The state operates 155 cabins, 80 motel rooms, 3,000 campsites, two 18-hole golf courses and one restaurant at state parks.
The $1.4 million in projected savings includes nearly $700,000 generated by turning over the operation of the lodge and golf course at Hickory Knob State Resort Park to a private company. Also, about $300,000 could be generated annually by letting a private vendor run the campground at Myrtle Beach State Park.
Van Stickles, director of the State Park Service, said the division of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism isn't sure how well privatization could work but is considering all options.
Recently, the agency took a privatization baby step. Privately stocked vending machines replaced the park-run snack bar at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site.
The park service also plans to convert to a central reservation system for its cabins and campgrounds, Stickles said. However, that operation is expected to be run by state employees.
Georgia will turn over its central reservation system to a private company after a bid is approved in the coming weeks. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which runs the parks, expects major savings and improvements from privatizing, said Paul Burkhalter, who is directing the change.
"I'm trying to think of a minus, and I can't come up with one," Burkhalter said.
The private company will keep the reservation lines open later on weeknights and on weekends for the first time. It will set up an online reservation system. And the state agency will reduce its staff by about 20 workers.
The state will collect just as much for each night in a cabin.
Visitors will have to pay a little more -- the exact figures haven't been set -- as a handling fee that goes to the private reservation company.
While Georgia officials are excited about the private reservation system, they ran into some problems when they privatized the actual operation of the lodges at several state parks a few years ago.
Burkhalter didn't know the specifics, but he said the agency decided to "deprivatize" several lodges.
The National Park Service has contracted with private concessionaires since the early 1900s, when the isolation of Western parks made staffing their hotels difficult. "For the most part, it's been very successful," said Elaine Sevy, a National Park Service spokeswoman in Washington.
In South Carolina, Janette Jackson of Easley often stays in state park campgrounds or cabins. While not necessarily anti-privatization, she appreciates the low prices at state parks and wonders whether those might rise if a for-profit company takes over.
"I think they're doing a real good job now," Jackson said. "I'm pretty happy except it's hard to get the cabins" because they all are reserved more than a year ahead of time.
Stickles said one of the efficiencies the agency is considering would be boosting prices at some of the most popular parks, much as the private sector would.
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(c) 2004, The State, Columbia, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.