Rocky Pt., Goddard Park entry fees not in offing

Warwick Beacon ·

While Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed $9.9 billion state budget depends on park and beach fees to fund park improvements and enhance maintenance, Department of Environmental Management spokesman Michael Healey said yesterday that pedestrian entrance fees at Rocky Point or Goddard Park are not being actively considered.

Healey said, however, DEM is looking at event fees at both parks. Those fees, he explained, would cover the additional costs DEM faces to patrol and clean up parks after an event attracting a crowd. DEM will also explore expanding the use of the parks by third parties, such as it does with a kayak rental business at Lincoln Woods that would enhance the park experience and generate added revenue.

“They’re being loved to death,” Healey said of the state’s 25 parks, management areas and nature preserves and eight saltwater beaches. He said the department aims “to modernize” state parks.

According to the DEM, Rhode Island parks rank first in visitors per acre in the country but 47th in state spending per acre. The department recorded a total of 9.4 million park visitors for 2016.

“We have a real opportunity to celebrate, invest in, and preserve our parks so they continue to increase value to Rhode Island, encourage healthy living across communities, and provide a backdrop for sharing special times with family and friends,” Raimondo said in a release.

Over the past 15 years, budget and staffing cuts to the DEM’s Parks and Recreation Division – combined with increasing visitor use, longer seasons, aging facilities and expanded responsibilities – have hindered the agency’s ability to meet some park users’ expectations.

The solution, according to a study released last week by DEM, is a strategic, sustained, long-term investment to increase the self-sufficiency and economic potential of the park system, protect infrastructure, enhance programs, and bolster operations and staffing.

The document, titled “Rhode Island State Parks Organizational Management and Operations Study” and conducted by PROS Consulting Inc. and CHM Government Services, states that Rhode Island’s park system is “at a critical crossroad.”

“Without a concerted effort to increase staffing and funding, the system will continue to deteriorate, and the department will be unable to keep some facilities open and adequately staff and maintain others,” it states.

The report states that full-time staffing at Rhode Island’s parks has decreased by 67 percent since 1989, from 123 to 42. There is one full-time employee for every 67 maintained acres, well below the 1:30 ratio the report identifies as being in line with best practices.

According to the report, $800,000 is spent annually for contracted services, and $50 million in infrastructure needs – stemming from aging facilities and deferred maintenance – have been identified.

In terms of financial management of the park system, the report recommends the creation of a business development office focused on revenue generation strategies; the establishment of new pricing and fee-setting policies; the development of a new budget process with the assistance of the General Assembly and the Office of Management and Budget; and the exploration of new recreation and business opportunities within each park.

“The outdoor recreation industry is thriving ... The recommendations below make good business sense and have the ability to enhance the state park system’s economic potential and to increase revenue generate opportunities for the state,” the document reads.

The report also outlines recommendations to protect existing assets and infrastructure, including the adoption of new design standards and the incorporation of climate change resiliency strategies.

“Now is the time to transform Rhode Island State Parks into a modern and dynamic system with the resources, structure, and tools needed to advance its mission and protect its assets to better serve the Rhode Islanders and tourists who visit them,” it reads.

The governor’s budget would appropriate an additional $1.5 million to DEM for six additional full-time positions. Two of those personnel, Healey said, would staff an office with the goal of developing additional revenues for the department. As an example of some of the issues being addressed is whether there should be differing campsite fees depending on location and whether rates for out of state visitors should be higher. Should DEM be charging the same fee, Healey asked, for a site with an ocean view as for one in the woods?

The state’s natural and public assets include 8,200 acres of parkland, 1,000 campsites and 400 miles of hiking and biking trails.

Healey called the park system, an engine that add an estimated $315 million to the economy, generating nearly $40 million in state and local taxes and supporting nearly 4,000 jobs a year.

As for fees and how they might impact Rocky Point or Goddard Park, Healey said DEM wouldn’t be charging people walking into the parks. He couldn’t say if parking would be free.

“We’re evaluating all our fees,” he said. “Everything is on the table.”

He added changes in regulations would involve a public process and “done in the sunlight.”