Every few years, there is an attempt by the West Virginia Legislature to privatize state parks, according to officials.
This year, that attempt may be veiled in Senate Bill 485 – a complex bill that extends private lease agreements from 25 to 50 years, removes all legislative oversight, as well as removes any restrictions on the types of facilities that can be built on state park lands.
“They say that is not what the goal is,” said Senator David “Bugs” Stover, R-Wyoming. “But, I’m a ‘no’ vote on this.”
“The bill means a private contractor could come in and build a casino, a racetrack, an amusement park, or anything else on state park property,” explained Walt Shupe, who recently retired after 33 years in West Virginia’s state park system.
Shupe served as superintendent of Holly River, Watoga, and Pipestem Resort state parks before retiring.
“The state just spent $150 million updating and renovating state parks. Visitors to state parks are probably the most they’ve ever been. State parks are probably making more money than they ever have,” Stover emphasized.
“If this is an attempt to
privatize state parks, why now after we’ve spent all this money to improve the parks?
“People are staying in the park lodges now. People are coming to picnic in state parks now. People are staying on the campgrounds now. People are enjoying our state parks now.
“I’m not saying private money couldn’t be used, but why give the parks away?” Stover said.
“We believe the real purpose of this bill is to enable private contractors to operate all revenue producing facilities, both existing and new facilities they would build, while the state will have to operate all non-revenue operations,” Shupe said.
“Concession-run private parks don’t work,” he noted, adding the state has previously tried it and it has failed miserably.
At Canaan Valley Resort State Park, after years of privatization, no money was put into maintenance.
Once these contractors see a facility is struggling, they will not put any money in maintenance, Shupe noted.
“They will leave a broken facility,” Shupe explained.
At Canaan Valley, the buildings were in such bad condition, they had to be torn down and replaced by the state.
Privatization didn’t work at Stonewall Resort. That park has been in default of its millions of dollars in revenue bonds for years.
Private contractors are only interested in the revenue-producing facilities within the state parks, Shupe noted, they will leave all the maintenance and other costs to the state.
“They get all the revenue and take none of the costs.
“And the average West Virginian will not be able to afford the park.
“If privatization worked, contractors would be building such resorts all over the place.
“Now here we are again, trying to privatize our state parks,” Shupe said.
“We’ve invested over $150 million into fixing the parks now and why would we want to turn the revenues over to a private operator for 30 years with the possibility of a 20-year renewal?
“What will West Virginia residents think of this?
“It’s just a pattern here in West Virginia,” Shupe emphasized.
“We get the parks in good shape, then these private contractors come in and want to get their fingers in the profits.”
State parks offer much more than monetary benefits, Stover pointed out, including shared family experiences, both mental and physical health improvements from the walking and hiking trails, in addition to the environmental protections provided in the parks.
“Outdoor recreation is the third thing for which state parks are designed,” Stover explained. “The first and second purposes are protecting natural and historical sites.
“West Virginia operates the best state park system in the nation. Why would we want to change that?
“Some things are worth protecting and state parks are worth protecting,” Stover emphasized. “Like I said, I’m a ‘no’ vote on this.”
Senate Bill 485 was moved from the Senate Natural Resources Committee on to the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 21 with a 6-5 vote.
A similar bill – House Bill 4408 – was before the full House of Delegates last week.