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Lets all work together to keep Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites open…

Lets all work together to keep Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites open…

…The headline says it all. We in Georgia have an obligation and duty to keep our State Parks and Historic Sites open. We have an obligation to ourselves and a duty to those who will follow us.  The announcement by Georgia DNR Commissioner Chris Clark of May 27, 2009 was not the first restructuring of State Parks and Historic Sites that we have experienced nor sadly will it be the last.  Restructuring and reorganization have come to mean only one thing in Georgia government reducing an existing budget deficit.  The failure of the executive branch to properly and pragmatically prioritize those services which the state government is both legally bound and constitutionally mandated to offer its citizens is a failure of leadership and of will. 

GORHA is not an advocacy organization for any branch of government or particular public interest group.  Because of this status we are able to speak more directly to the problems that create these budget deficits and offer solutions other than restructuring and reorganization. 

Frankly, restructuring and reorganization are euphemisms for multiple failures. The most obvious failure occurs in the budgeting process when unrealistic but politically palatable projections are created in the executive branch.  These revenue projections are most often rooted in a cursory, superficial review of prior years revenue rather than a thoughtful analysis of state and national economic indicators. The tendency is to ignore the needs of citizens and satisfy the political wants of elected officials, and always and correctly provide Georgia with a constitutionally mandated balanced budget.  Over and over again, budgets reflect the boom or bust realities of current economic crisis’s, overestimating surplus and failing to predict shortage.  We need to step back and take a hard look at why we continually face this boom or bust cycle, we need to ask hard questions as to its efficacy, and how we can substantially improve the process and the result. 

Perhaps the first question that we should ask in the process of budgeting and providing these services which we offer our citizens is: What do we want the State to provide us in the way of outdoor recreation and legacy education? How many parks and historic sites should we have? Are there new areas and sites which should be included in the system? Are there parks and sites which should be closed? What services would be desired, what facilities need to be improved, or constructed? How can we better market these locations and generate sufficient revenue? How are our parks and sites best managed?  What educational opportunities exist or should be created? How important is legacy and heritage? 
 

It may well be that many of the sites that we have work properly and were correctly chosen for the recreational and historical value that they possess. It may well be that we should not consider removing or closing any of the sites. It may even be determined that other sites, other locations should be considered for inclusion into the state park and historic site system. What is certain is that the process should begin with a careful and thorough review of what the State Parks and Historic Sites mean to the citizens of Georgia, to their communities, to those of us involved in outdoor recreation and to those who will in the future benefit greatly from our stewardship. Thankfully, it is not impossible to predict future population growth; to predict future demographic trends; to predict the locations of expanding communities and the limitations of transportation systems that are needed for public access to outdoor recreation opportunities and exposure to historic sites.   Legacy education, which offers perspectives on how we came to be the people that we are, is critical in preserving our heritage and defining our future. 

We often hear the term  "stakeholders" in reference to public entities; with State Parks and Historic Sites, every citizen in the State of Georgia is a stakeholder, and the needs of all citizens must be considered and included in a careful study to determine where we are now and where we’re going in the future with State Parks and Historic Sites. 

It is my belief that holding a series of public hearings late in the evening or  at lunch in public libraries scattered throughout geographic areas of the state, as is practiced now, is grossly inadequate to determine the value and importance of State Parks and Historic Sites in the public’s perception and the public’s need of  outdoor recreation and legacy education.  The internet offers us an amazing opportunity not only to determine what the public wants, but to create grassroots support for new and exciting initiatives to assure public satisfaction and public use of State Parks and Historic Sites. Working with hundreds of industry specific web sites, with elementary and secondary schools and with Georgia's colleges and universities, we can more accurately determine the interest and support that exists for State Parks and Historic Sites. Using mass media together with the internet, we can reach tens of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts, and with modern public opinion survey techniques, we can randomly sample voters to gauge thier interest and support.  We don't need sub-committees, highly compensated "marketing research" consultants or another government "study" group. We need to collect and analyze facts.  

The second question that should be asked is: Is the existing structure which delivers State Parks and Historic Sites to citizens the most efficient and desirable means to do so?  The cyclic nature of the government budgeting combined with the political interests of the executive branch leave little room for creativity or experimentation in methods  and means of delivering outdoor recreation and legacy learning experiences to the general public.  If, as we have seen, there is a continual need for restructuring and reorganization and then it should occur to us that we need to find a better structure, free of meddlesome  politics and cyclic revenue variations. 

I believe that such a structure exists and has been successful in our state for over a half century. The experience of both the Jekyll Island Authority and the Stone Mountain Authority point the way to a better model, one that has stood the test of time and delivered meaningful outdoor recreation experiences to literally millions of Georgians. What if we were to take this existing model and create from it a new authority, the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites Authority. What if we transfer ownership and management of all properties to such an authority, with a mandate to create, within three years, a self sufficient, fee for use based fiscal system.  Such a governing structure could benefit from the financial capacity of state issued bonds and our state’s credit rating to maintain and develop an expanding system of Parks and Historic Sites.  Under such a plan, parks and historic sites could charge day use fees equal of the cost of day to day maintenance; they could enter into relationships with city and county governments to provide services benefiting specific local needs; and through vendor relationships beneficial to both parties, they could generate a self supporting revenue stream. 

Best of all, with the advent of the new smart ID cards and Georgia Driver’s Licenses, soon to be issued, no citizen would be left out of the enormous benefit that outdoor recreation and legacy education provides.  The Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites Authority could offer premium park passes, event passes, with significant discounts to those citizens who for whatever reason are economically challenged, physically disabled, or deserving of special consideration. An annual park pass could be purchased at the time of renewal of their smart driver’s license or ID card, and that same card could then be used and read electronically as a park pass. Citizens unable to pay for daily park passes could be identified by incorporating their EBT or other eligibility data electronically onto their card; in fact, the smart card could replace numerous forms of personal identification and entitlement. Such a system would be invaluable to fiscal and marketing management.

A key feature of such an improved system is that not every state park would necessarily have to “break even” or produce a surplus of revenue; the parks and sites which are more visited, more popular with citizen consumers would produce revenue in excess of their needs and that revenue would be used to subsidize other Parks and State Historic Sites. With the ability to judiciously issue bonds, purchases of historic sites, battlegrounds, and much needed urban park sites would be possible without the need to be delayed until state budget revenue allows their purchase or regrettably, until we lose the ability to purchase because of sale to private entities. New sites could be nominated, historic markers could be maintained and erected, and cooperating with GA DOT, road side and directional markers could be installed, increasing access and outdoor recreational opportunities for Georgia citizens and out of state tourists alike. 

Another key feature of such an authority is the unbridled ability to market, to promote, to drive and increase market share in an increasingly competitive disposable income scenario. Partnering with local entrepreneurs, with stringent eligibility guidelines, specific services and facilities could be privately provided or managed.  The outrageously meager current expenditure for state and national tourism promotion could be augmented with significant investments in brand development, targeted advertising, and consumer awareness programs.  Tourism is the second largest industry in Georgia, imagine how large an industry it would be if it were promoted in the same manner as some of our privately owned attractions!

Obesity is a pervasive problem among school age children and sedentary adults, and developing the enjoyment, the habit of hiking, biking, jogging, camping, kayaking, just being outdoors under the sun and the stars is a healthful alternative to thumb play and American idol worship.      

The authority would have the same ability to hire and compensate the best and brightest in the advertising and promotion business. Consider this carefully: Can you imagine our State’s Lottery success, and payout to HOPE, if government employees were in charge of promoting it?  We are sitting on under-promoted, under utilized TREASURES, and government not only can’t make them pay for themselves, government can’t afford to pay for them at all! 

The May 27th announcement stated that ninety- five full and part- time employees would be separated from their positions and 81 vacant positions eliminated. This comes on the top of previous reductions in force and maintenance cut-backs that have eviscerated nature studies, historic interpretation, educational facilities, damaged park attendance and the public’s perception of the value of our TREASURES. 

Maintenance, who needs it? Security, who needs it? Toilets, who needs ‘em? Who cares what type of tree that is, is that a frog or toad? Is that plant native to Georgia?

Who cares?  

Don’t you? 

Working together, we can eliminate the influence of politics and budgetary foolishness on our most precious common possessions, the State Parks and Historic Sites of Georgia.  

Bull Sullivan

Editor, GORHA.com

The Peach State Update

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