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State wisely lets go of park money sinkhole

Finally, a park that entered the state’s realm under suspicious circumstances will return to where it came, eroding little its value to Louisiana’s recreational system while relieving taxpayers of a large load.

Confirmation came this month that Hodges Gardens State Park would close and transfer back under control of the previous owners. A private citizen had developed the area initially as a private home, and over time opened it to the public. Known mostly for its horticultural offerings, under state control it would expand on amenities that provided camping, oversight lodgings, boating and fishing, and an amphitheater.

The foundation that had run it offered it to the state around the time of the hurricane disasters of 2005. A number of aspects should have discouraged the then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration from accepting it. Money would be tight for a couple of years, yet the state would incur startup costs of over $1 million and roughly the same in operating expenses each year. Much of the park had features similar to several within a few dozen miles in a sparsely-populated area of the state, but this one would cost much more to run in order to service the botanical gardens, the one unique feature not only in comparison to the nearby alternatives, but also statewide.

Yet the property lay in the district of the then-House Speaker Joe Salter who wanted the deal done to preserve it. Then the Blanco Administration negotiated a deal to get it no charge but this committed the state to run it or the foundation could reclaim it. Because of the horticultural expenses, running it produced by far the highest per visitor costs in the state system, several times the average. With a flat state parks budget over the decade and (according to statistics from 2011) the park having among the fewest visitors, among the lowest revenues but among the highest in expenditures, it became too difficult to maintain.

(The bill that took over the property attracted a curious rider in conference, when then-state Rep., now Sen. Pres. John Alario had stuck in a land swap that appeared to favor a private entity connected to the New Orleans Firefighters Pension and Relief Fund – these days mired in controversy over investment practices and payouts – and Jefferson Parish. Salter and his ally Blanco must have given their blessing to that alteration or the bill never would have made it back to the House floor.)

Parks seldom make money, but, at the same time, neither should these ineptly suck up taxpayer dollars. Its location well off the beaten track with plenty of competition around for all but horticultural fans made it unlikely to be anything but a money sinkhole with its much higher costs. Nor did it appear that the state could create segmentation between the park and gardens where it could have charged a higher fee for the horticultural area to help subsidize.

The foundation has committed to continued preservation, with the assistance of a group of unaffiliated volunteers, of the land, although whether it will reopen to the public remains unanswered. Having a resource like that benefits the state, but it is unfair to expect taxpayers to go beyond the call of duty with so many other priorities needing fulfillment. Even if the area does not reopen to the general public as a result, putting such a heavy burden on taxpayers would not justify reversing that outcome.

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