Wildlife Prairie State Park could move from state ownership to non-profit
Peoria Journal Star
EDWARDS - Leaders of Wildlife Prairie State Park hope to take the word “state” out of its name.
Far from a mere name change, park leaders and local legislators hope to make the park independent of the state’s fiscal woes that have squeezed its and the Department of Natural Resources’ portion of the budget pie.
A bill amendment, sponsored by state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, would give ownership of the park to the Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park, a private not-for-profit group that has been operating the park for years. The change would allow the group to pursue other avenues of financing for much needed capital projects.
Whether the change sets a precedent of the state allowing private groups to take over state parks during the financial downturn is unclear. But it does highlight one way the private sector has helped state parks across the country stay open during trying fiscal times.
“It could (set a precedent),” said state Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth, D-Peoria, who is a chief co-sponsor of the House bill. “But I think it remains to be seen if this is a good thing statewide.”
The bill passed the Senate 51-0 in late May and now awaits action in the House.
Koehler said he does not think the bill will be precedent-setting. Both Koehler and Marc Miller, director of the DNR, noted the unique nature of this park with a private group already in place makes privatization feasible. Miller emphasized that the DNR is not considering turning over more parks to private groups.
But Miller said the department would be open to discussions about having more private entities run certain operations within parks as a means to improve service and save money. The most notable example of private groups currently operating in
Illinois state parks are lodges.
Meanwhile, private-public partnerships, in which a private company or not-for-profit takes over most or all of the operations within a state park and pays a lease to the state, are being explored in other states.
Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that 70 of the state’s 278 parks were slated for closure. That list has been whittled down to five that are scheduled to close Sunday. Many were saved from closure, at least temporarily, by private not-for-profits or local governments stepping in to help keep them open.
In addition, the operations of six parks will be taken over by private concessionaires as part of five-year contracts, with the state retaining ownership. The state currently has 190 private company contracts for things like marinas, snack bars and parking lots, but the scale of privatization in these six parks is a “significant evolution from traditional contracting” at the state level, Harris Kenny, a policy analyst at the Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, wrote in an email.
Last year, Utah allowed a private company to take over the campgrounds and day use areas of its parks, where the fees were collected. But the state ended up losing money on the deal and took the parks back.
Despite that experience, contracting out some operations are being encouraged, said Utah State Parks Director Fred Hayes. The state does have one park that has been operated by a private group for more than 10 years successfully, Hayes said.
Kenny said it makes sense for private companies to take over some operations of state parks because they’re able to operate more efficiently in many instances. A private company, for instance, could use economics of scale, use personnel more efficiently, and make long-term investments in parks that aren’t always possible in the state’s year-to-year budget cycle, Kenny said.
Kenny acknowledges that there is some pushback when it comes to private operators in public parks.
“At the end of the day, those people aren’t looking at the situation as it is,” Kenny said. “It’s not about public versus private. It’s will this park be closed or not?”
In Illinois, the future of state parks has been threatened by state budget issues, giving priority to reforming Medicaid and pension systems.
Over the last 10 years, the DNR’s general fund revenue has been slashed by almost $58 million, a 55 percent reduction. It has also lost about 1,400 employees since 2002, a 54 percent reduction. Wildlife Prairie State Park hasn’t received state money since 2009, and instead relies on membership, admissions, donations and grants.
The park currently has 14 full-time or part-time employees, with a volunteer force that it says is equivalent to 14 employees. Five years ago, the park had 40 full-time employees.
Bill Cirone, who will become president of the Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park effective Sunday, said as the owner of the park, the group will be able to seek partnerships with local governments as well as potentially take out loans for capital improvements, something the state was unable to do.
But the most important reason for turning the park over to the Friends, Cirone said, was to energize donations from the community. He expects local foundations to be more open about giving money to the park when they know the owner is a member of the community as well.
Cirone hopes that the transfer of ownership results in improved trails and amenities for thje park’s 151,000 yearly visitors, and a place for future generations to enjoy the outdoors.
Citing the recent investment in the Peoria Riverfront Museum, Cirone said, “There’s no reason that Wildlife Prairie Park can’t be the same destination center.”