Corporations touring state parks with eye toward privatization

Large private out-of-state vendors are touring Tennessee state parks this week to gather information about their operations and potential for profit as part of the Haslam administration’s sweeping plan to privatize management and operations of virtually every state-owned facility, reports Richard Locker.

Despite months of planning and working with vendors, neither Gov. Bill Haslam nor his top lieutenants have led any public discussion of what would be the most comprehensive change in the operation of state government in decades, potentially throwing thousands of state employees out of work and shifting others into jobs with private companies.

Instead, the plans first surfaced publicly with a “Request for Information for Facilities Management Outsourcing” posted Aug. 11 on a state Department of General Services’ website viewed mainly by potential state contractors. The document invites companies interested in the contracted management of a broad range of state activities to submit information, by Aug. 21, on how they would proceed. The RFI says their responses will be kept confidential.

The document specifically lists as potentially up for outsourcing “office space; higher education, including classrooms, administrative space, dormitories, etc.; hospitals; prisons; parks and recreational, including hospitality centers, hotels (inns), campground facilities, etc.; Military; etc.”

As part of that effort, a small group of major national vendors, including Aramark and Delaware North, are making site visits at several Tennessee State Parks across the state whose retail operations the Haslam administration is proposing to outsource, including inns, cabins, campgrounds, restaurants, marinas and golf courses. This week’s meetings began Monday at Montgomery Bell State Park just west of Nashville and end Friday at Paris Landing State Park in West Tennessee, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the tours but who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly.

At each park, the vendors are given a group tour of the parks and their facilities and then meet with park managers to discuss operations, finances and employment. The initial tours are focused on 11 of the biggest state parks seen as having the potential to produce revenue: Cumberland Mountain, Davy Crockett, Fall Creek Falls, Harrison Bay, Henry Horton, Montgomery Bell, Natchez Trace, Paris Landing, Pickwick, Tims Ford, and Warrior’s Path.

Under the proposal, the parks would remain state-owned parks but private vendors would be awarded long-term leases for much of their operations.

…The state Legislature this year approved a law allowing alcoholic beverages to be sold in state parks for the first time, a move seen as making the parks more attractive to private vendors.