County parks department selling gift cards

Embracing the spirit of entrepreneurialism, the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department has launched a new gift card just in time for the holiday season.

The $69 gift card can be redeemed for annual park membership, which comes with perks that parks staffers hope will drive up membership, bring in dollars and increase dialog toward developing new programs that will appeal to the public.

"The other reason that we did this ... is to plant that seed that going out in nature with people you like or love is the best gift you can get," said Mary Clemens, marketing and program manager. "There is no better thing for your mental, physical health than going outdoors."

The parks department, which manages 49 sites around Sonoma County, has long sold annual parking passes that allowed users to park for free.

Last spring, it rebranded the passes and began selling "memberships" to instill a sense of paying not just for parking, but for the parks themselves, officials said.

In exchange, members get the free parking, a free night of camping, family passes to the annual Tolay Fall Festival, discounts on park merchandise and access to what staffers hope will be a growing menu of interpretive hikes, lectures, films and other programs.

The idea, said Don Schwartz, county parks business strategy and development manager, is to provide value-added benefits for members willing to help sustain the parks while maintaining the county's ability to provide broad access to everyone.

Schwartz said staffers have been brainstorming new opportunities at local parks — maybe yurts for those who don't like tent-camping, or wedding venues — and hope to benefit from member input as they design new programs.

"We want people to feel more part of the whole park system, by providing more benefits to them as members. That's a big part of what it's about," Schwartz said. "But the department as a whole is moving toward a more, we use the term, &‘sustainability model.' The tax dollars aren't there the way they need to (be), and we need to provide value where we can keep bringing them (members) in, keep rates low for broad access, but offer higher-end opportunities for those who want them."

Gift cards are $69 — the same price as annual membership for most people, though senior membership for those 60 and older is $39. Membership for permanently disabled residents is $23.

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