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Despite public controversy, some state parks operations are quietly going private

Clutching their plush mermaid dolls, Savanna Tobias, 7, left, and Briana Houston, 8, check out a display of keychains at the Gift Locker gift shop at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Friday.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Clutching their plush mermaid dolls, Savanna Tobias, 7, left, and Briana Houston, 8, check out a display of keychains at the Gift Locker gift shop at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Friday.

For months, fans of Florida's award-winning park system have been in an uproar.

First came word that Gov. Rick Scott's budget cuts might force the closing of 53 parks — but amid complaints, Scott decided against that. That was followed by a bill in the Legislature, backed by Scott, to build golf courses in some parks. A public outcry prompted the bill's sponsors to drop it.

Then came this month's furor over a plan to let private contractors build new campsites — including spots for recreational vehicles — in 56 parks that don't currently allow camping, including Honeymoon Island State Park. After hundreds showed up at a public hearing to complain, Scott scuttled the Honeymoon Island plan and told his staff to reconsider the others.

But quietly, and with hardly anyone objecting, a big chunk of the services provided to visitors at Florida's state parks is being privatized anyway. As of this month the state has handed over the job of running a lodge, a number of restaurants and gift shops, and one canoe and kayak rental operation over to private contractors.

Blame the tight budget, say officials from the agency that oversees the state parks, the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Scott told all of his state agencies to come up with ways to cut their budgets by 15 percent, explained DEP spokeswoman Kristin Lock. One of the ideas the DEP suggested: Turn over some operations at five state parks to private contractors.

This trend has been going on for some time as the state has looked for ways to squeeze more money out of the public's strong affection for the natural beauty found in its 160 parks.

Nine years ago, for instance, individual state parks stopped taking phone reservations for campsites. Instead, the DEP signed a contract with a subsidiary of Ticketmaster called ReserveAmerica to handle all campsite reservations by phone and online. The move made the state money, but added extra fees onto the cost of camping.

As of this summer, "we currently have 100 agreements with private concessionaires operating in state parks," Lock said, noting they include everything from vending machines to boat rentals.

All told, she said, the cut has eliminated about 24 full-time state jobs and reduced the budget by $3.5 million.

Not everyone is happy, however. Lock reports that her agency fields about 15 calls a month from consumers complaining about park concessions.

• • •

Three of the newest contracts were awarded to a single Brevard County company: Cape Leisure Corp., founded by Daniel LeBlanc. By handing over some park operations to his company, LeBlanc said, "the state gives up very little control, but they give up all the risk" of losing money. "The state has made a great decision here."

But it's not altogether rosy. "There's a little bit of pain and uncomfortableness with these transfers, because of the state employees involved," he said. Some get hired by his company, but others have to go find other jobs, he explained.

Cape Leisure took over the restaurant, cafe, gift shop, and canoe and kayak rental operations at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County. For that, the company will pay a $2,000 monthly base fee to the state, plus a 4 percent commission on gross sales through November of next year. The commission will eventually increase to 8 percent.

Cape Leisure also took over the lodge, restaurant, gift shop and soda fountain at Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee. It has been in charge of selling all the food at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County since last fall, but will now expand to handling the gift shops, too.

Cape Leisure, which has about 150 employees, was already running concessions at Fort George Island Cultural State Park and Anastasia State Park. If other parks come open, LeBlanc said, he'll submit bids for those too.

• • •

How can a private company produce more revenue from a park than the state? The key is expertise in pricing and marketing, LeBlanc said.

"We know how much we ought to be paying for a T-shirt and how many to order," he said. "And we know how to do marketing. Before we took over the Wakulla Springs lodge, it didn't have its own web site, much less online booking. Just that, all by itself, can make a difference."

There's more to come. State officials are negotiating with Advantus Leisure Management Services to run some operations at Hillsborough River State Park, where everything in the state-run gift shop is now 75 percent off in anticipation of the takeover. Meanwhile state officials are trying to figure out what services they can farm out to private contractors at Rainbow Springs State Park.

That the state is now handing some operations at Weeki Wachee Springs over to a private company is somewhat ironic. Three years ago the state took control of the venerable roadside attraction from a private company with a long history of financial problems. That's how mermaids wound up on the state's payroll.

Twenty years ago, LeBlanc served as vice president of marketing for the Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee Springs attractions, as well as the Weeki Wachee Springs Holiday Inn. He later became president of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex before launching Cape Leisure in 2008.

"Weeki, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for it," LeBlanc said.

After the state took over Weeki Wachee from its owners, its park rangers did a great job, especially in dealing with the canoe and kayak rentals, known as Paddling Adventures, said Clay Colson, a sometime river guide and leader of the environmental group Citizens for Sanity.

"The Paddling Adventures was never in more capable hands than with the state, which made upgrades and improvements to the entire facility," Colson said.

He's worried about a private company taking it over again because, he said, "no one has ever done the outstanding job the state park service has."

Rose Rocco, an ex-Hernando County commissioner and president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs, said she's taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the change. State officials "seem to think the privatization is a good thing, but we'll see how it all works out," she said. "Thank goodness they left the mermaid show. That's historical."

Times staff writer Tony Marrero and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Despite public controversy, some state parks operations are quietly going private 07/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 9:11pm]
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