Let's start with a little park trivia. Where in the national park system will you be able to view materials illustrating the vision and legacy of Walt Disney? No, I promise this isn't a trick question. Here's a hint, it's at the same park where you can go to stand in front of a sculpture of Yoda and reflect about galaxies far, far away. Honestly, this is a real place in the parks, in fact, it is inside the second most visited park unit in the country. OK, last clue, this park is currently accepting Requests for Proposals to build a public museum to display the private collection of contemporary art belonging to Doris and Donald Fisher, the co-founders of The Gap. If you haven't guessed yet, take some time and play a round of golf, maybe the answer will come to you.
If your answer is the Presidio, you nailed it. Located at San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio is a former Army base that was transfered to the National Park Service when the base closed in 1994. Quite a gift. The trouble is, the yearly maintenance bill for the 469 historic buildings is far more than Congress has given the park to spend. The solution from Washington was to make the Presidio the first park in the system to operate self-sufficiently. If it isn't turning a profit by the year 2013, the entire base could be turned over to developers.
Earlier this week, I wrote a summary of the Presidio story for the Frommers.com daily newsletter. The story, "Trading Spaces: The Park Service Turns Over the Presidio to Private Parties", covers some of the costs and consequences of the operations game in the park. The article provides a "backgrounder" of sorts of how privatization entered the picture at the Golden Gate NRA.
At the end of the Frommer's article, I suggest that if the money-making plans at the Presidio succeed, it wouldn't be hard to imagine similar plans being created for other historic structures in park units around the country. What I didn't mention in the article, is that a similar type of development plan is under way on the other side of the country in New Jersey, at Fort Hancock in the Gateway National Recreation Area.
Things haven't been going as well for the private developer at Fort Hancock. Nearby residents are fighting tooth-and-nail to stop the development inside their park. Plus, the developer has munged things up so badly, that now the Inspector General is looking into the 60 year lease agreement signed with the NPS. Congressman Frank Pallone described the entire lease and development process as a debacle.
Longterm lease agreements for private developers? A Walt Disney museum? Managing the park for profit? Little public accountability? These places feel less and less like they are operated in the best interest of either the public or the parks.