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State must take taxpayers off hook of dubious deal

In the face of far more important priorities and much more cost effective venues, the time has come for Louisiana to end its experiment with Hodges Gardens State Park, located near Florien.

About a decade ago the state assumed control of the land, which a citizen had built and ran as a private facility. For a half-century, the family developed it as a botanical garden open to the public. But times changed and with the completion of Interstate 49, it became too expensive to run and began to deteriorate. Then, political connections brought it to the attention of the state, and a sweetheart deal to have the state operate it while the family’s foundation technically still owned it blossomed.

From the start controversy surrounded this transaction, as its transfer came along with a mysterious unrelated land swap clouded in intrigue. Then-House Speaker Joe Salter backed the bill, and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed it that, even without the dubious swap, would add forecast costs to the state of $1.5 million annually in the aftermath of the hurricane disasters of the year before.  Naturally, over the years the state learned the same truth as did the owners and now along with a few others parks the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism has signaled it might close these should the state’s revenue environment not improve significantly.

That would come about as consequence of the original donation. If the foundation believes inadequate funding would go to maintain the park in the manner desired under the grant, it can repossess the land. It has sent such a default notice, to which the state has yet to respond.

Unfortunately, its botanical garden status makes it much more costly to run – with per visitor costs four times the average state park’s and almost twice as much as the next highest, Lake Bistineau – and even an entrance fee much higher than any other park’s can’t close the gap. Despite having few employees, its personnel costs exceed those of almost every park in the system, even those with many more personnel. It also lies within 25 miles of several state historical sites and South Toledo Bend, diluting its attractiveness for more mundane activities such as picnicking and camping.

Last year, budget difficulties previously threatened the park’s existence, and the state responded with the idea of transferring operation to the Sabine River Authority, which runs its own parks. But after initial assent to the idea, for reasons not made public the SRA has pulled back from the notion.

Simply, with sparsely-utilized benefits, the park just does not justify state taxpayers footing its bill. Northwest Louisiana faced a similar situation in the past year with some of its museums, yet these stayed open when local governments and philanthropic organizations stepped up. This year, a bill in the Legislature will make formal the parting of ways between the operator, the Secretary of State, and those and a few others around the state.

Something like this must occur for Hodges Gardens to remain open, although its distance from the Shreveport metropolitan area makes that kind of solution more problematic. But the fact is that favoritism brought the state into assuming responsibility for a park that provides relatively few benefits at high cos, a deal that never should have happened. With so many more pressing matters on their hands, policy-makers need to relieve state taxpayers of this burden, and if area residents truly value it they will find a way to keep it up and running.

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