Visitors’ Opinions of Who Should Provide Services and Amenities in State Parks
Keywords:Privatization, state parks, private contractors
AbstractPublic recreation and park agencies’ efforts to privatize have been hailed by many as an efficient way to deliver government services, but there is very little empirical evidence to support this claim. To date, most researchers have documented the public’s attitude toward privatization through polls regarding basic preferences, but few have afforded citizens the opportunity to discuss their own reasons for supporting or opposing recreation and park privatization practices. This is unfortunate, as understanding the public’s feelings about privatization will help managers decide the best option for delivery of their services and amenities. This study focused on visitors’ opinions of who (private sector vs. public sector) should operate various services/amenities within a state park system and, more importantly, why they hold these opinions. On-site interviews were conducted during the peak season at 13 different state parks in Pennsylvania. According to most state park visitors, Pennsylvania state parks should be primarily responsible for environmental education programs, park maintenance, campground operations, pool and beach staff, and outdoor recreation programs. In terms of why they felt this way, visitors suggested that it was because employees have the knowledge about and the ability to control services and amenities within state parks. They also indicated that operating these services and amenities is what agency employees should do, because they are the stewards of the parks, and that maintaining such operations will eliminate the possibility of over-commercialization. Alternatively, respondents generally felt that food and beverage services, watercraft rentals, and special events and festivals should be operated by private contractors. They perceived that private contractors would enhance the quality of and be more cost effective in providing these services and amenities within state parks. Respondents also suggested that state park employees should not be responsible for services and amenities that are not central to their job, and allowing private contractors to compete for the opportunity to manage these services and amenities may also result in more jobs in the area. Results of this study can help managers of public parks to consider whether or not privatization is an appropriate option for various elements of their systems. If they decide to privatize, they will need to write clearly delineated and enforceable contracts, which can be difficult in small rural areas where few competitors bid for contracts. Further, in situations where state park managers face intense scrutiny from the public, they may want to consider forming intergovernmental cooperative agreements (i.e., formal and informal agreements between governmental entities to lend support to each other). Such agreements may be easier to manage and may result in less animosity from the general public. Results also can assist non-profit and commercial organizations who provide contractual services at state parks by illustrating the reasons that visitors cite concerning the merits of outsourced services. Given that there will continue to be shifts in the public- vs. private-sector delivery of recreation and park services, particularly in the face of current budgetary crises faced by public agencies, managers are encouraged to continue to document how visitors feel about the operation of their park services and amenities.
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