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Privatization of N.J. Park System Sparks Debate

A chain restaurant in Wharton State Forest. A Ferris wheel at Liberty State Park. Weddings, flea markets, and corporate events taking over New Jersey’s historic sites and scenic lands.

According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that could be the future if the state goes forward with plans to privatize parts of its park system, some warn.

“Next thing you know, you have to pay more for everything and the public’s access is limited,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “You’ll be getting fee’d to death.”

The state has a different vision. Lou Valente, chief project adviser for the state Department of Environmental Protection, foresees parks that retain their character while better serving the public, cost less to operate, and generate more revenue.

Private entities would provide lifeguards, event-planning, boat rentals, enlarged food service, even small stores with camping supplies. Nonprofits would take more responsibility for interpretive programs, freeing up DEP employees for other duties.

The changes, made public in October, will be implemented gradually, officials said, as part of a long-term strategy to keep the parks open by making them more self-sustaining.

The criticisms “have no connection to what we’re doing,” Valente said.

“We’re planning substantial change by 2015,” he said. By then, 38% of the system’s budget would come from deals with private and nonprofit entities for things such as the concessions at Liberty State Park, installing solar arrays on parkland and continued leasing of four state-owned golf courses.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that eventually, the state would like two-thirds of the system’s annual operation budget to come from outside sources.

“Some people may want McDonald’s,” Valente said. “We don’t. But giving people something to eat? That’s fair.”

Food service is already at most parks, he said. “There are hot dogs and hamburgers. We’d like to go more broadly than that.”

The state doesn’t want to compromise the system’s integrity, said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. “There’s no talk of Applebee’s at every park. There won’t be neon signs along the trails.

“We want to bring the parks into the 21st century,” he said. “People come to the parks for nature and history, but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer them something to go with it.”

A record 19 million visitors were drawn to 440 acres of state parks in 21 counties last year. The system takes in 500 miles of hiking and riding trails, 10 miles of beaches, and 39 recreation areas, along with 50 historic sites.



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