Filed under: Friends of Otter Creek Park News, Interviews, Louisville Metro Government, Media, OCP News
(Map of Otter Creek Park from the C-J via Metro Parks.)
Courier-Journal blogger James Bruggers published an extensive post on his Watchdog Earth blog today featuring Metro Parks Spokesman Jason Cissell answering some questions about entrance fees and liability issues at Otter Creek Park. Here’s the entire post:
Otter Creek Park is closed now. The city says it can’t afford the $500,000 it takes to keep it open. The city also says it gets about 500,000 visitors.
Some folks have asked: Why doesn’t the city charge a small admission fee, and keep it open.
Well, I posed that question to Jason Cissell, the parks spokesman, who replied (my thoughts on the responses are in bold):
“We looked at that for Otter Creek. In fact, when we redesigned the road system to create a single entrance a few years back, we had a gatehouse in mind. To be clear, the road redesign was for safety and for way-finding, but the idea of a gatehouse seemed interesting. A couple problems, though:
1) Charging a daily admission fee for general access to the park would jeopardize our recreational immunity, creating the possibility that an injured park visitor could successfully sue us.
2) Otter Creek Park has some significant natural hazards (more than any other park we operate), and we have park users air-lifted from Otter Creek to hospitals downtown every year. Recreational immunity, as defined in state law, gives us an additional tool to defend against lawsuits by injured parties. Same reason we don’t charge to use the skatepark: the revenue isn’t worth the risk.
(This all sounds a bit odd, but I also don’t doubt that lawyers offered that advice. Meanwhile, the city assesses all sorts of different fees on recreational services, and state and national parks typically charge visitor fees, so I am not sure I fully by that reasoning.)
3) The costs to build and staff a gatehouse around the clock (since we have overnight guests) would offset a good chunk of the anticipated revenue.
(What about using volunteers for some of the shifts? I wonder whether the city would need to hire union labor? Collecting money in a booth seems sort of like a minimum wage job. I am not totally buying this one, either. Also, an automated gate activated by some sort of code or card could be used at night.)
4) The argument of charging a buck or two a head assumes that all of the 500,000 annual park visitors are coming for informal day recreation. The vast majority are coming for things where they’ve already paid a fee: weddings, corporate events, campground, cabins, summer camps, etc. We count all those, including YMCA users, in our attendance estimate. The number of people coming for informal park use is really fairly small, as evidenced by the light parking at trail-heads and down by the river. Charging admission for someone coming to a wedding isn’t really practical (brides and moms get angry about that sort of thing), and trying to keep a list at the gatehouse of everyone who has already paid would make it very time consuming to get through the gate. The fees for camps, weddings, corporate events, etc., are priced according to what the market can bear, and adding a per-user surcharge to that would take our prices higher than many would pay. Example: your wedding is drawing 300 people, we’re charging $2 per visitor. You either tell all your guests to arrive early, queue up at the gate and fork over $2, or you pay an extra $600 for your rental and issue passes to all your expected guests.
(This answer makes the most sense to me. I can see some logistics problems. But I think it could be worked out to just add the additional fees into the bills of those who are renting the services, and then those visitors get in by showing a wedding invite or pass. I’ve got no way of knowing what the market will support for weddings without doing some sort of market survey. Would the prospect of an extra $600 for a 300 person wedding party really send the happy couple elsewhere?
5) Not all park users (i.e., YMCA users) can be compelled to pay a fee, based on longstanding agreements. That creates another logistical challenge at the gate.
(How about negotiating new agreements based on new economic realities?)
All that said, I’ve generally never understood why some people think parks need to fully pay for themselves. Access to nature and outdoor recreation is critical for people’s mental and physical health, and public open spaces make sure that outdoor recreation is available to everyone, not just the wealthy who have access to private farms or forests. We don’t charge for police or fire runs.
Let’s hope that the city, working with park advocates, Fort Knox, the state and others can find some sort of resolution that makes this lovely park along the Ohio open to the public again, soon.
By the way, there are now more than 6,000 members of a “Save Otter Creek Park” page on Facebook.
Kudos to Mr. Bruggers for asking the questions that seemingly no other member of Louisville’s Fourth Estate seems willing to ask. Of course, there are a number of inconsistencies in Mr. Cissell’s answers. Here’s some more questions inspired by Mr. Bruggers’ post (some of which are directly related to his; our apologies):
1. By what legal reasoning is the City of Louisville less liable for accidents at Otter Creek Park (or any other city park, for that matter) because of a lack of entrance fees? It’s not as if people entering OCP — or Cherokee Park — sign some sort of waiver upon entering.
2. Red River Gorge, the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Hoosier National Forest, and many other parks in the region more than likely also have to airlift any people injured in their park boundaries to Louisville — how does that make OCP special in any way? Any serious incident in any Kentucky county without a trauma center probably has to do the same, so how is the City of Louisville any more liable than, say, Brandenburg or Vine Grove?
3. Despite the risks involved with operating Louisville Extreme Park, it was opened anyway, and continues to thrive. Why is that risk deemed acceptable (even without an entrance fee) yet activities at OCP are somehow more risky?
4. As we understand it, Metro Parks employees who worked at Otter Creek Park were transferred to other Metro Parks. Where is there any savings in terms of employment? Isn’t talking about how a guardhouse would add extra cost sort of a ploy to ignore the fact that Metro Parks is only saving $180,000 by closing OCP, none of which comes from payroll savings? Wouldn’t an active volunteer corps be enough to staff a guardhouse given that the Park closes at sundown?
5. Who in their right mind doesn’t charge some sort of nominal fee for wedding parties? Is Cissell even serious by thinking that wedding parties couldn’t be a significant revenue stream for the Park? If so, we would happily take a look at rates at comparable venues around Louisville (the Water Tower, the Galt House, etc.), and get back to him with an estimate on what should be charged.
6. If corporations who’ve used Otter Creek Park are doing so “on the cheap,” that begs another question about whether the Park’s facilities are being used and marketed in the proper fashion. Assuming that OCP’s conference center was a relatively reasonable rate cheaper than comparable sites in Louisville , why hasn’t an increase been considered? Shouldn’t corporations who use City facilities be encouraged to pay market rates, in the sense that they are giving back to the community?
Much like issues of security at Otter Creek Park post-closing, these questions need to be adequately answered.
(One last note for Mr. Bruggers: the Friends of Otter Creek Park Facebook page only counts our members who are active users of Facebook. There are many more people involved with our movement who are not on Facebook, but who should be counted.)
UPDATE, 1/21/09: A follow-up with Mr. Cissell has been posted — http://www.courier-journal.com/blogs/bruggers/2009/01/why-not-charge-2.html.
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