Friday, February 20, 2009

A Business Paradigm For Parks

With the current recession, local and state tax dollars are tight, and the public is considering purchases with a new sense of caution. These factors are adversely affecting park agencies. In just the last week I have heard of one local park closing and significant cut backs in many park agencies in Northern Virginia. No one can remember a time when budgets were tighter and for forecasts for when the economy will recover are not encouraging.

In this environment a new paradigm or model is needed to think about the park agency of the future. The new model will be of park agencies that are largely self sufficient with lean staffs that are mostly supported by enterprise revenues. While basic experiences like using a picnic table or hiking on a trail will be free, programs will need to be self supportive, and agencies will need to be entrepreneurial in offering value added services that the public are interested in buying.

The wisdom for this new model is not likely to come from park and recreation curriculums, but will come out of business schools. It is no longer enough to open the door and unlock the gates and assume the public will seek out the facilities and program offered. We need to compete for the limited leisure time and market our products and services like any successful business does.

In the early part of this decade we saw a significant decline in park usage. For an agency that generates over 80% of our operating revenues through enterprise activities, this had a significant affect on our bottom line. To correct this we reinvested in our facilities to bring them back up to a high quality, and then focused on real marketing. We launched a new web site, revamped on old brochures with a new fresh look and distributed them widely through visitor centers as well as our own parks. We increased our use of print ads and experimented with radio, and TV adds. We are also proactively reaching out to the blogging community to get our word out. The result has been double digit growth in usage over the last few years.

In 2007 the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority won recognition in Pioneer Institute's Better Government Competition for our Entrepreneurial Service Delivery:

As difficult as the next few years are going to be in the park field, in the long run making park agencies look at their operations in a more business like manner will make agencies stronger in the long-run. Since we do not have a choice in what economy we would like to be in, we might as well embrace this challenge and grow from it.

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