VALRICO — A couple of months after the county implemented entrance fees at more than a dozen parks, two eastern Hillsborough canoe rental shops appear to be taking the brunt of the commercial impact.
Amid the recession and budget shortfalls, the county now requires vendors to pay a $400 monthly fee to help prevent twice-a-week park closures. The move forced Alafia River Canoe Rentals to cut part of its yearly operation to seasonal.
The company has run shuttles to a canoe launch at Aldermans Ford Park without a charge for more than 30 years. Customers paddle for several hours before winding up back at the canoe shop in Valrico.
Owner Sybil Cribbs said it's not worth it this time of year to pay the fee, so she stopped using the park at the end of November. She said she'll pay the fee in March when the season picks back up. Until then, customers can come and go only from her dock.
Business has declined in recent years for Cribbs. Having to pay the fee in the spring won't help as she tries to retire soon.
"I could understand it a little more if I was parking there, but none of our people ever park at the park," said Cribbs, 70. "We're in and out of there in 10 minutes or so."
In Thonotosassa, Canoe Escape, which uses several parks along the Hillsborough River as drop-off and pick-up sites, is the only company that has paid vendor fees since they went into effect in November, said county parks and recreation spokesman John Brill.
Although Canoe Escape uses Sargeant, Morris Bridge and Trout Creek parks, the county allows it to pay fees for just two of the sites. Still, that's $800 a month.
President and part owner Brian Faulk said the company has had to cut jobs and is operating as lean as possible, in addition to increasing boat rentals by $2. Cribbs plans to raise her prices by $2.50.
"Our slowest six months is when we had to start paying the fee," said Faulk, 35. "So that's been a very hard thing to make up for."
While businesses pay $400 monthly to use regional and wilderness parks, the general public pays by the carload. The cost is $2 per car for up to eight people and $1 for each additional person. The fees also apply to the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.
"It was something we didn't want to do, but that was about the only alternative left," Brill said.
In all, county officials expect fees to generate about $3 million this fiscal year (ending Sept. 30). They hope revenue will be enough to keep the parks open seven days a week and avoid job cuts.
Faulk, whose family opened Canoe Escape 18 years ago, said he understands the need for fees. However, he would've liked to see them start out lower.
His biggest concern is that companies less visible than his use the parks without paying.
"There are commercial interests that are using the parks; make no mistake," he said. "That's such a difficult thing to police. Unless people have logos on their vehicles, it's very hard for them to know who would be a commercial and who would not."
Canoe Escape and Alafia River Canoe Rentals use buses and vans, carrying stacks of canoes.
It hasn't been determined whether fees will remain the same next year, Brill said, adding that it's doubtful they'll be eliminated. By adding fees, he said, the county is following a national trend.
Faulk just hopes it pays off.
"If the fees are what keep the parks open so that people can take the next generation of kids out and enjoy the outdoors," Faulk said, "well, then ultimately we won."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.