This State Park Brought to You By...
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
Volunteering in state parks has long been a staple of the Boy Scouts experience. But in Georgia this year, as the Boy Scouts celebrate their 100 th anniversary by building bridges and park benches, maintaining trails and cleaning up waterways, the ongoing event is unusual in one respect: It's sponsored by Verizon Wireless.
The company is providing funding for tools and supplies as the scouts perform service projects around the state. In exchange, Georgia is recognizing Verizon Wireless in publicity materials and on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Web site.
"Every interstate has these huge brown signs that tell you 'Red Top Mountain State Park,'" says Chris Clark, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. "And at the bottom, we'd love to have 'Chick Fil-A,' or whatever else, as a simple way of marketing."
State parks have always relied on the generosity of volunteers, communities and corporations to keep afloat. But they've tended to go to great lengths to make sure that even volunteer recognition is done subtly, with minimal intrusion into the outdoors experience. Now, as budget gaps widen and park systems become more desperate for cash, Georgia isn't the only state that is cautiously experimenting with more aggressive approaches to corporate sponsorship.
According to preliminary survey results from the National Association of State Park Directors, a growing number of states are trying out or considering corporate sponsorship or exclusive distribution deals as a way to help close budget gaps. State parks have traditionally resisted any type of commercialization, says Phillip McKnelly, the association's executive director, and the interest in pursuing corporate partnerships is a relatively new phenomenon driven by the severity of funding crises in state park systems.
In Georgia, the parks system has struggled to keep its parks open as its state funding has declined by more than 40 percent over the past two years. In that light, many parks advocates see the search for new corporate revenue as a welcome development, as long as it's done tastefully.
"There is general agreement that people don't want to see a NASCAR approach to branding the parks," says Andy Fleming, executive director of Friends of Georgia State Parks. "Everybody understands that there's a line that we don't want to cross, in terms of compromising the naturalness of the experience. But the reality is that there's a big gap between the amount of funding and the needs of the system."Trailside tactics
Another state that has taken a big leap into sponsorships is Virginia. The Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation has raised at least $5 million during the past five years through corporate sponsorships, and has begun providing more prominent recognition of sponsors to acknowledge their support.
"We are trying to be cautious," says Joe Elton, Virginia state parks director and president of the National Association of State Park Directors. "We believe that these sponsors deserve some recognition, but we don't believe that we need to engage in crass commercialization of our park system."
A similar partnership with the energy company Dominion has allowed the state park system to install high-tech welcome kiosks — complete with touch screens, GPS-based trail information, printable guides and maps, and virtual park tours. "The goal of that project was to enhance the visitor experience and to provide information to visitors when the office is closed," Elton says. "We shortened hours and are frequently understaffed because of budget cuts."
Clark hopes that this strategy may eventually allow the Department of Natural Resources to improve services and expand its programming. For example, sponsors might provide or help fund amenities that customers are looking for, such as wireless Internet access.
As an example of how this can be done tastefully but effectively, Clark points to the Georgia Department of Transportation's "HERO" program. Trucks staffed with state employees patrol congested Atlanta highways and help get traffic moving when accidents occur or vehicles stall — stranded motorists can call 511 for free help changing a flat tire or jumpstarting a dead battery. The effort is is funded for the next three years by State Farm, the insurance company, which gets to feature its logo prominently on the side of the trucks.
Despite some initial skepticism about pursuing parks sponsorships, Clark says the Legislature has been supportive of the idea, especially when he reassured lawmakers that their worst fears about commercialization could not be realized. "I had to tell legislators that it's actually in law that we can't rename a state park," Clark says. "It can't be 'Budweiser State Park.' "