GUEST OPINION: Park pass price hike is wrong strategy

  • 2/21/2012: B1:

    PC: Jason Foster bikes at Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, California on Monday, February 20, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Thanks to Staff Writer Derek Moore for covering the proposed increase of $70 in the cost of a state parks day-use pass ("Memo reveals plan to raise cost of annual permits," April 12). Here's why I think the increase is poor public relations and hardly a way to reward the public for its support over the past year.

The proposed increase from $125 to $195 is happening not only at a time when many families' disposable income is shrinking but also when many of us have been raising money to keep state parks open and have been trying to rebuild confidence with a skeptical public. There are more than 20 state parks and 10 beaches within a 90-minute drive of Santa Rosa. Yet the state sold only 396 passes in 2008-09 in the Bay Area, which has a combined population of 3 million. I do not believe that it is because people lacked parks, were too stingy or disinterested. There is something seriously wrong with state parks pass program.

The reason Sonoma County sells 12,000 regional park passes annually is because the award-winning program has, over almost two decades, built relationships between the public, the Regional Parks Department and the businesses partners who offer discounts. Passes are easy to purchase and reduce the "freeloaders" who don't pay entry fees. People actually feel good about purchasing the county park pass. Eighty-five percent of pass holders automatically renew.

State parks sells more than 60 percent of its 65,000 passes in Southern California to beach users and surfers. The sales numbers for the rest of the state are anemic. The idea that the pricing and marketing structure should be based on what surfers do in Southern California and ignore the rest of the state is alarmingly myopic.

Today, more than 5 percent of the households in Sonoma County own a regional parks pass. Statewide, state parks,with its annual day-use pass program, has a market penetration of less than 0.5 percent.

When I met with some state parks' managers in Sacramento in February 2011, I suggested that they might reinvigorate the state parks day-use pass program by drawing on the lessons learned from Sonoma County's program. Sonoma was able to accomplish a 5 percent market penetration of county households, and I suggested that it would not be unrealistic to accomplish the same for state parks. Even by making the state parks day-use pass more affordable, at $90 instead of $125, the state could, with a 5 percent market penetration, be making $42 million in increased net revenue by year 16.

The reactions from state parks managers were surprising. One manager stated that state parks could not sell passes through a third party like Sonoma County (through Safeway and CVS) because it would be a "gift of public funds." I pointed out that almost every bait shop and hunting store in California sells hunting and fishing licenses for the Department of Fish and Game, which, like state parks, is part of the Resources Agency.

State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, in an email to me, stated that the increase is aimed at the Southern California coast and a new cheaper pass for regions of the state is in development. However, she added the caveat that "we need to develop better credit card machines at all our parks." This statement implies that this will not happen any time soon. No doubt it involves finding funding to buy technology, installing it and training. This could be much more easily accomplished by allowing third-party sales, just as Sonoma County has done with pass sales through Safeway and CVS. Why invest in a new system when one is already in place? All of this takes time and money, neither of which state parks has on its side.

Philip Sales is a park and trail planner. He was chief park planner for Sonoma County Regional Parks from 1988-06. He created the Sonoma County Regional Parks pass promotion program in 1993.

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