Parks in crisis: Is Fort Worden’s PDA a remedy?

By Ross Anderson Contributor
Posted 11/10/15

The growing staff at the homegrown Fort Worden Public Development Authority works quietly out of their aging park building facing the Parade Ground, a seemingly nondescript headquarters that has …

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Parks in crisis: Is Fort Worden’s PDA a remedy?

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The growing staff at the homegrown Fort Worden Public Development Authority works quietly out of their aging park building facing the Parade Ground, a seemingly nondescript headquarters that has become something of a fishbowl.

Dave Robison, the executive director, and his crew are intensely aware that Port Townsend is watching closely as the PDA confronts the risky task of developing and managing a 90-acre campus with more than 70 buildings, many of them more than a century old.

His challenge is to turn that cluster of deteriorating buildings into a “lifelong learning center” – a nonprofit university, resort and arts center all rolled into one.

Within a few years, it must be largely self-supporting, taking in enough revenue to pay for itself.

And Robison readily acknowledges that there are few, if any, models out there to imitate.The PDA has had to invent itself as a $3 million-a-year nonprofit enterprise while reinventing a park which is an integral part of Port Townsend’s landscape, culture and economy.

“It’s a daunting task,” said Dave Goldman, a longtime park user and self-appointed watchdog who attends most of the PDA meetings. “There are so many details to managing what is essentially a destination resort.”

Interest in the PDA’s success or failure extends far beyond Port Townsend’s city limits. Parks across the state – and across the nation – are struggling with the same kinds of budget shortfalls that face Fort Worden, but this town is the first to roll up its sleeves and attempt to address the problem more or less on its own.

Will local public authorities pop up elsewhere? One potential candidate is St. Edwards Park, a 300-acre state park surrounding a former Catholic seminary on the east side of Lake Washington. The aging seminary building presents opportunities and challenges similar to Fort Worden’s, and the city of Kenmore has considered creating a PDA to take over management.

BUDGETS SLASHED

Most of the state’s 125 parks face the same fundamental problem. Since the economic collapse of 2008, state tax support for parks has been slashed by an astounding 79 percent. Some of that revenue has been replaced with the sale of Discover parking passes and other fees. Staff has been laid off and services reduced.

Park systems across the nation have similar challenges. From town squares to the Grand Canyon, Americans love their parks but are increasingly reluctant to pay the costs of maintenance, not to mention major improvements. At the depth of the recent recession, California proposed to close 70 parks.

Some state parks in California, Arizona and other states have actually been privatized – turned over to private management companies on longterm leases.

National parks have long since turned over management of lodges and other services to private companies. Aramark, a mega-corporation that provides food service at thousands of businesses and colleges, has managed the Olympic National Park lodges at Lake Quinault and Lake Crescent for many years.

Nonprofits also have been players. Years ago, New York City turned over management of Central Park to a private nonprofit that raises millions to supplement tax dollars for the park. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the former military installation overlooking the entrance to San Francisco Bay, is managed and financed in large part by nonprofits.

“Parks people everywhere are looking for alternatives,” said Thatcher Bailey, the former Centrum director who now runs the Seattle Parks Foundation.“It’s not about privatizing parks, but it’s a search for nonprofits that can take responsibility for covering some of the costs.”

DIFFERENT STORY

But state parks are a different story, which is why Port Townsend’s public development authority is being watched so closely.

Gerry Johnson, a Seattle attorney who specializes in helping set up public-private partnerships and public authorities, has worked with the PDAs that manage Seattle’s Pike Place Market and public housing in the International District and other neighborhoods. And he warns that most parks do not lend themselves to such enterprising management strategies.

A PDA is essentially a special purpose agency designed to “free up or enable public assets to become self-supporting while retaining them in the public sector,” he explained.

For this to work, a park needs to have buildings or other facilities that are capable of taking in enough rent or other revenue to pay for themselves. In most cases, these are facilities that are beyond the expertise of a state parks agency.

They also need consistent community support including a cadre of volunteers that help minimize overhead costs.

Even with all those ingredients, he added, a PDA needs efficient management – managers who can work effectively in the private sector.

That’s a rare mix, he said.

Fort Worden may be the only park in the state that can satisfy all those requirements. Port Townsend has the buildings, the community support, a long list of established tenants and years of experience drawing visitors from Seattle and beyond.

NO SLAM DUNK

But Robison readily acknowledges that making the public authority work is no slam dunk. Over the next few months and years, the PDA has a long to-do list.

It needs to negotiate leases, and in most cases raise the rent for some of Port Townsend’s most-popular institutions, including the Marine Science Center, Copper Canyon Press, the Coastal Artillery Museum and especially Centrum, the 40-year-old sponsor of the town’s summertime music festivals.

“Centrum had an awesome deal for a very long time,” said Thatcher Bailey. “Any way you look at it, this is going to be a kick in the butt for Centrum.”

The PDA needs to begin renovating the fort’s 400-odd guest accommodations, ranging from budget dormitories to three-bedroom apartments on Officers Row.

It needs to begin addressing an estimated $80 million maintenance backlog affecting virtually every building on campus.

It needs to find a way to accommodate scores of low-wage temporary summertime employees in a town where summer rentals are scarce and costly.

Perhaps the toughest challenge is to define and develop the concept of a “lifelong learning center” while also introducing new attractions such as the pub planned for the old Guardhouse. Some park lovers are skeptical whether the park can simultaneously become a learning center and a destination resort.

Robison says his greatest fear is “another major recession,” an economic downturn that would inhibit travel. To succeed, Fort Worden needs “heads in beds,” he said. Visitors may come to study Spanish or culinary arts or learn to play the fiddle; the trick is to persuade them to eat and sleep in the park as well.

In recent months, the authority has succeeded in attracting two major grants totaling $5 million from California-based family foundations, each with family members who are big fans of Centrum and/or the park. That money will be used to renovate specific buildings, mostly at the west end of the park.

They have lured a major film production that will bring an estimated $400,000 onto the campus next year.

$6 MILLION RENOVATION

And Port Angeles–based Peninsula College has begun a $6 million renovation of its East Jefferson campus across from the Fort Worden Commons.

The PDA has taken over the food service, getting excellent reviews and breaking even. It's also built a hotel-style front desk into the Commons, creating a hotel lobby staffed for 18 hours a day – more than doubling the hours previously maintained by state parks.

None of this seems to diminish the grumbling around town, where critics continue to suspect that their beloved park has turned to the dark side of the Force.

For all his skepticism, David Goldman acknowledges that Robison and company are dealing with problems they inherited.

“State parks created a culture of neglect,” he said, “Salaried people who got paid regardless of their success or failure. The PDA is trying to solve problems they did not create.”

While he opposed the creation of the PDA, he now believes there is no alternative. “There were no other bids. Nobody else wanted the job.”

Carla Main, an avid park supporter and chair of the Centrum board, agrees. Rent increases for Wheeler and McCurdy and other park venues will complicate Centrum’s mission, but it’s inevitable, she said.

“If the PDA fails, we fail,” she said. “If the PDA succeeds, we succeed.”

(Ross Anderson is a retired Seattle Times newspaper writer and frequent contributor to the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader)

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