State seeks corporate donations to bolster programs at cash-short parks

March 07, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK -- Maryland's cash-strapped state parks, which attract millions of visitors each year, are beginning to solicit businesses for supplies ranging from trucks to toilet paper, as well as to underwrite outdoor programs.

Seeking corporate dollars for park maintenance and improvements is part of a growing trend among park administrators nationwide.

It's a trend that also draws a warning from the director of a national parks group, who cautions that, in luring corporate money, blatant commercialism needs to be avoided.

"No one wants to see something like 'Welcome to General Electric's Yellowstone National Park,' " said Ney Landrum, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.

But Marylanders are "not trying to change the mission and goals of the state parks -- to protect and preserve recreational opportunities," said Wendell Jones, assistant park manager at Sandy Point State Park. "We're just looking for ways to fund that."

State officials have not set a monetary goal for their new effort. But one objective is establishing an endowment fund that would provide yearly revenue for Maryland's 47 state parks and forests.

Park officials hope to attract outdoor recreation companies and businesses that want to enhance their images by being associated with state parks, said Helene Tenner, coordinator of public participation for the Maryland State Forest and Park Service. Some donations may be "in-kind services" -- instead of giving cash, for example, companies could allow employees to fix park fences or clean trails.

The state's wish list includes sponsors for some of its popular programs, including:

* Junior Rangers, which gives youngsters experience with nature and parks through work projects.

* Scales and Tales, in which small, wild creatures saved from injuries are taken to schools and groups for presentations.

"We feel what we have to offer [to advertisers] is 9 million to 10 million state park visitors a year. It's an excellent target market for businesses who want to reach people who love the outdoors," Ms. Tenner said. "From that perspective, we feel we are unique."

Because of budget cuts, state parks in recent years have relied heavily on volunteers for maintenance and other projects -- even as park attendance continues to grow.

But volunteers haven't been able to keep some parks open regularly and visitor sites staffed.

"Everybody needs money," Ms. Tenner said.

The success of the ambitious mission depends on whether the public can accept corporate sponsorship at its state parks and forests.

"People aren't used to state parks being run like a business. A large part of this is educating the public," Mr. Jones said.

Barry Tindall, director of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association, said that state parks across the nation are pursuing different strategies "to try and close the money gap."

"There are any number of adopt-a-park programs around the country," Mr. Tindall said.

Mr. Landrum, of the national park directors group, also noted that a bill that would permit corporate sponsors at national parks languishes in Congress.

"That legislation is indicative of the lengths people are going to generate revenue," he said. "It's a sad commentary on the times when we have to stoop to that kind of thing to support a legitimate function of government -- and that is to preserve parks and open spaces for people, not only the people of today but tomorrow, too."

Maryland officials say they have no intention of letting state parks resemble billboard-plastered fences at baseball stadiums. Corporate advertising, as they outline it, will be more discreet, limited to such activities as distributing discount coupons at gates or hanging a banner.

In the past few years, Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland has sought corporate sponsorship to build a playground, provide a pontoon boat for lake and environmental tours, and publish park brochures.

"Brochures are standard fare at state parks," said Bill Cihlar, Rocky Gap State Park manager. "But they're one of those things that are cut when the money is tight. A lot of parks are just running copies off copy machines. We have a quality color brochure."

Money from businesses and the nonprofit Rocky Gap Foundation last summer enabled the park to waive the $2 admission fee for visitors.

As a result, the park counted 200,000 more visitors last year.

"Previously, about one-third of the visitors would have turned around," Mr. Cihlar said. "Instead, we had lines waiting to get in, we sold more hot dogs and the beaches were crowded. We even saved money by not having to pay someone to collect fees."

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