What Factors Shape Visitor Support for the Privatization of Park Services and Amenities?

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Journal of Park and Recreation Administration






Sagamore Publishing LLC

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The privatization of park and recreation services has received increased attention across all levels of government due to the perception that public agencies are costly, inflexible, and inefficient, that direct service is monopolistic, and that there is a distinction between the provision and production of services. While scholars have weighed in on the merits and pitfalls of park privatization, few efforts have sought to empirically document public support or opposition to park privatization and examine the potential factors that are linked to privatization support or opposition. Park and recreation administrators would, therefore, benefit from research documenting those situations, conditions, and characteristics favoring the use of park privatization as well as those conditions discouraging such practices. For example, it is unknown whether there is a connection between citizens’ perception of an organization’s performance and their preference for the operation of various park services and amenities. This study documented the degree of visitor support for outsourcing within a single state park system. It also examined how state park visitor characteristics, their use of park services, and their perceptions of concessionaire and state park agency performance influenced their support for privatization of various park services and amenities. On-site survey interviews were conducted across a geographically diverse sample of state park visitors during the peak park use season. Findings revealed that visitors generally favored government operation (or production) of park services over privatization (or outsourcing). This was particularly true for services that had a long history of state park operation and/or were more closely aligned with state park mandates, mission, and traditions (e.g., campground operations, environmental education programs). Specifically, state park visitors were most likely to support the state park operating/managing environmental education programs, park maintenance, campground operations, and pool and beach staff. Visitors favored outsourcing of specialized functions such as food and beverage operations, special events, and watercraft services at higher rates, but these were either at or just under a slim majority of visitors. Based on public sentiment in this study context, policy implications are to provide training for public park administrators in core competencies of campground operations, park maintenances, and programming. Moreover, emerging park and recreation professionals should understand best practices in outsourcing food and beverage operations within park settings. Results from multivariate regression analysis indicated a significant model with an overall weak explanatory power suggesting future items to consider when gauging predictors of privatization support/opposition. In this study, household income, prior use of concession services/amenities, and perceived fiscal performance of state parks emerged as significant predictors of privatization support. Respondents with higher household incomes and respondents who did not patronize concession services/amenities were more likely to support private-sector operation of state park services/amenities. Conversely, visitors who perceived state parks to be fiscally responsible were less likely to support private-sector operations. One implication of this finding is that agency fiscal performance should be a factor in the decision to privatize or not privatize. In other words, government agencies who have a history of poor fiscal management might find it difficult to garner support for expanded public operation of park services and amenities. Given that privatization of park services is likely to continue in the near future, park and recreation managers are urged to understand the full range of reasons that visitors cite for supporting/opposing specific privatization activities and those conditions that favor or discourage the use of privatization practices.?

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