CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming’s state parks often fall into the shadows cast by the splendor of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
The number of visitors at the state’s 35 parks, museums and visitor centers decreased in 2012 and was the same as in 2007.
As a result, the Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Department and a select group of state legislators are developing a plan to drive visits and revenues in the state park system. The goal isn’t to compete with Yellowstone and Grand Teton. It’s to keep tourists in the state after they go to the big destinations, said Milward Simpson, director of the Parks and Cultural Resources Department.
“If you can provide cultural tourists certain products, it affects how long they will stay in the state, sleep in hotels and visit local restaurants,” he said.
Wyoming will be the first state with a blueprint aimed at overhauling a whole state parks system, said Margaret Bailey, senior vice president of CHM Government Services. The overhaul is known as the Concessionaire Master Plan.
The state contracted CHM to oversee the department’s new investments, assist in drafting new laws and evaluate the best private companies with which to work, Bailey said.
CHM has worked with the National Park Service on a variety of projects (including one for Mount Rushmore National Monument), the Bureau of Land Management, and state parks in South Dakota, California and New Mexico. Wyoming will pay CHM $168,498 for its services.
In a state where tourism is the No. 2 source of revenue, the attempt at a fix is a stride toward gaining more customers in an economy in which camping, hiking and sightseeing vacations are affordable options for families. There are certain things travelers expect out of parks, and Wyoming doesn’t offer them at all locations, Simpson said.
Zip lines, rock climbing, bike paths, electrical hookups and updated campgrounds are all on a list of ideas to help polish parks in need of makeovers. The department has used its website as an online forum for public input. It will be open for suggestions until May 15.
Budget cuts ripped into the state park’s coffers while visitation has wavered in the past few years, making it difficult for state officials to accommodate travelers’ needs, Simpson said.
“It’s the great paradox,” he said.
The Wyoming Legislature cut 2013 state parks funding by 5 percent, a $480,000 decrease, hitting the agency’s operations and maintenance budget the hardest, Simpson said.
“All the water parks are set up in a way that they’re not making money,” said state Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. “But they should be.”
State officials hope state dollars alone won’t finance the new concessions.
Lawmakers and park administrators are touting private business as the solution, but the state has had its fair share of problems working with vendors in the past, Driskill said.
In 2010, some concessionaires at Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis clashed with the state over proposed lease rates and demands for renovations. The concessionaires asked to have their fees waived, said Carolyn Buff, a former state parks commissioner.
The vendors were also miffed that the state encouraged them to renovate their facilities. Buff went to Thermopolis and said one hot springs concessionaire didn’t have a cash register and didn’t accept credit cards. The showers and the dressing room did not meet her expectations, either, she said.
“We want them to provide a high-quality, safe experience,” Driskill said. “They got to get higher quality.”
The concessionaires have since paid, but the conflict set the tone for revamping how the state negotiates its contracts with private vendors.
When the state signed a deal with TePee Pools, a hot springs operator in Thermopolis, the contract outlined that the concessionaire could pay the state 0.5 percent of its annual revenue in 2014 as long as it used 2.5 percent on renovating its facility.
The contract may act as a guide for CHM and the state to follow when negotiating leases with concessionaires, Simpson said. The deal with TePee Pools lasts until 2047 and requires the company to pay 3 to 5 percent of its revenue to the state beyond 2015.
Renovations have occurred in a few parks around the state. Officials cite Curt Gowdy State Park as a prime example of what can happen with a little innovation.
There was a 40 percent jump in visitation at the park after the state installed bike trails, said Domenic Bravo, an administrator with the State Parks and Cultural Resources Department.
Keyhole State Park saw a spike in visitors after camper cabins were installed. Guernsey State Park received an uptick in campers after it installed yurts, tepee-like tents for campers, Simpson said.
CHM’s recommendations will be followed with committee debates by state lawmakers and legislative appropriations in the 2015 session, Driskill said.
“This will be a reflection on the tourism industry throughout the state,” he said.