Anchor chain on display at Columbus-Belmont State Park
Brad Bowman of the Frankfort State Journal reported in the August 21-22nd issue of the paper that Jack Conway and Matt Bevin are in accord on one point. According to Bowman, at a recent debate, the candidates agreed that "more could be done for tourism and the need for more public/private partnerships for state parks."
There are differences between the candidates. Bevin called the state parks "a little sad" and advocating privatizing the management and "enhancing" them.
Conway didn't go that far. He did allow that there are ways to "engage in public/private partnerships with the hospitality industry to do more in and around tourism and state parks." As far as the condition of the parks, he said some of the resort rooms are "dilapidated."
There are 50 state parks in Kentucky. Of those, 18 are resort parks, having at the least a lodge and dining room. Three of those resort parks are in far western Kentucky: Lake Barkley, Kentucky Dam Village and Kenlake.
At one time, Kentucky's state parks were crown jewels enticing millions of tourists to the state. Shrinking resources have changed those parks from jewels to being described as "sad" and "dilapidated" by the candidates of the two major political parties. Instead of pledging increased support to polish the jewels, Conway and Bevin are willing to foist the parks off to private industry.
Have we learned nothing from privatizing jails?
Public properties require public investment. It is an inconvenient truth that public officials, especially those who want to run the state like a business, choose to ignore. Few state properties have more contact with the public than the parks. Spread throughout the Commonwealth, the park system is a testament to what the government thinks the people it serves cares about. The investment in the park system has become more and more "sad."
We fear that selling off the parks to private investment will put property that belongs to the citizens of Kentucky into the hands of those like Verso Corporation, close them down like the paper mill for reasons of corporate profit. It is not hard to imagine that parks like our own tiny jewel, the Columbus-Belmont Park, being shut down as too small and too far from the madding crowd of the central portion of the state. The larger resort parks could find themselves increasingly being forced to become more and more profitable or face closure.
Conway's more modest proposal is less frightening but still fraught with pitfalls. Privatizing labor and management will take employees out of the state merit system. That has happened with industries. Farming out the work can mean farming out oversight. It's like putting a phone company service center in a country that doesn't speak country. What happens is frustration on all sides.
The bottom line is that private business runs for the profit of the owners. That's capitalism. Companies that purchase properties of the park system will expect a return on their investment. Sooner rather than later.
Sloughing off the responsibility to nurture the jewels of Kentucky - our state parks - to private management or ownership is intellectually lazy. If candidates don't want to care for the parks, then their proposed solutions should involve local government and local citizenry. What works for Pine Mountain State Park may be a partnership with private investment. That won't necessarily work for Lake Barkley or Cumberland Falls.
Citizens around the state have the right to expect their next governor to be the caretaker of the state park system - not its realtor.