Arizona State Parks Director Renee Bahl is leaving the agency next month to pursue other career opportunities. Before she leaves, we ask her about the current state of Arizona’s Parks System.
Ted Simons: Renee Bahl, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Board, is leaving her post for a position in California. This, after two years of trying to keep Arizona's parks open and operational during times of budget cuts and fund sweeps. Here to assess Arizona's parks is Renee Bahl. Good to see you again.
Renee Bahl: Thanks, Ted.
Ted Simons: Why are you leaving?
Renee Bahl: Well, it's a great opportunity for me to go to Santa Barbara County. I'll be an assistant county manager, which provides professorial opportunity but what's more important is what opportunities I've had here, what a hardworking staff, tried nothing but try and keep the parks open. It's been a great privilege.
Ted Simons: Give us a current assessment of the Arizona state parks.
Renee Bahl: In 2012, if all goes as signed, as the agreements go as signed, only one park will be remained close. That's San Rafael. We've never had intent to be opening that one. We'll be opening Oracle State Park with an agreement with a non-profit friends group for six months a year. We should be opening Lyman Lake up again next summer, like it was this summer and all of the other parks are open or turned over to others to open.
Ted Simons: Talk about these agreements. Mostly with communities, correct?
Renee Bahl: Mostly with communities or nonprofits or one with the tribal government, the Hopi Tribe.
Ted Simons: Are they bridges or band-aids.
Renee Bahl: They are bridges and band-aids, but important band-aids because some allowed us to make management changes and keep the parks open on their own.
Ted Simons: Days and hours of operation, that changes?
Renee Bahl: Some are closed two days a week, reduced the hours. Some certain seasons. Years. We're acting like a business.
Ted Simons: How about the maintenance of the parks? Where are we and heading here? I know that's always a concern.
Renee Bahl: The deferred maintenance is a big problem. Probably one of the biggest this agency will face in the next few years. We have $170 million of a deferred maintenance backlog. From the water lines to the roof, to roads. We have problems at every single park and that's a hard one to fix.
Ted Simons: Is privatization an option to fix that?
Renee Bahl: Privatization could be an option. Interestingly, we put out a request for information for the private sector to operate Tonto Lodge, and one of the common themes and reactions from the private sector is you have to fix your maintenance there first, before we'd be interested to come in. It costs a lot of money and that's a risk for the private sector to take.
Ted Simons: We keep hearing about privatization in a variety of aspects of government. What does privatization with the state parks actually mean? Does it mean capital, maintenance, supervision, what does it mean?
Renee Bahl: It depends on who you talk to. But oftentimes, the area that the private sector is interested, those area that make money. So it's basic operations and very basic maintenance. Typically, your capital needs are still taken care of by the public sector. Your lawmaker and wastewater treatment and EMTs and emergency and first aid, all of that would still need to come from the state. So the private sector is interested in those areaa that make money. They're great value-added. We have fantastic concessions at many parks. They rent boats and you can take equestrian rides and they run general stores and that's value-added for the customer and Arizona state parks.
Ted Simons: But the big picture stuff?
Renee Bahl: More problematic. You have your environment issues and habitat monitoring and your environmental education and things that you don't generate revenue from.
Ted Simons: So much is because of budget cuts and fund sweeps out of what should have been yours but not anymore. Is there anything being done that money that you generate at the gate stays with you?
Renee Bahl: Yes, Representative Karen Fan from legislative district one is sponsoring legislation that allows state parks to keep the revenue it earns and protects the state park funding. The gate fees and camping fees and the other things, the majority of our recreation land is owned by the federal government, the federal government says you need to show state parks that that money you generate at the gate won't be used for anything else. Protect the fund. If you protect it, you can add more private partnerships on the land.
Ted Simons: Good chance to go through?
Renee Bahl: I'm completely optimistic it's going to pass. We were challenged to act like a business, we made a 17% rate of return. A 17% positive margin last fiscal year on our direct operating costs to what we brought in. Met every challenge and this is just a tool that costs nothing.
Ted Simons: High points, low points of your tenure?
Renee Bahl: High points are definitely the communities, the tribes, and nonprofits, the people stepping up and saying state parks are important. Not because of the intrinsic values because the rural economies understand state parks are an economic engine that maintain jobs. 3,300 jobs. They get it, we need all of the leaders in this great state to get that.
Ted Simons: What about a low point?
Renee Bahl: Well, we're not going to go out with a low point. We're going to say we have strong relationships and it's an interesting ride the last years.
Ted Simons: That sounds like a lot of low points that you don't have time to pick one? All right. Try this one: Advice for the incoming director?
Renee Bahl: One: Maintain the relationships with the local communities. They're the only reason that the majority of our state parks are open today. I wouldn't let that go. I think this legislation is key to pass and we have just the most talented dedicated staff and don't lose sight of that. We're at half staff. Less than 200, we should have 400 and they're keeping all of the parks open.
Ted Simons: What do you take to California?
Renee Bahl: I take a very open mind and it's not a bad thing to ask for help. People step up.
Ted Simons: There you go. Good luck to you.
Renee Bahl: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.
Renee Bahl: Thanks.
Renee Bahl:Director, Arizona State Parks;