Division of Parks to sell merchandise to help pay costs, become self-sufficient

Add promotional hats, water bottles, visors and other promotional items to the list of ways Alaska hopes to balance its budget without hiking taxes too high.

The Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation got a green light from the Legislature to sell parks-themed merchandise for a profit.

As long as Gov. Bill Walker signs the bill, SB 101, the division can begin ordering merchandise and pricing it to offset the division’s cost of operating.

The program is likely to start small, said Claire LeClair, the chief of field operations for the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

Although the Legislature approved a statutory change to allow the division to sell merchandise on a fee structure “that ensures reasonable monetary return to the state,” the division did not receive any additional funds to implement it, she said.

Meanwhile, the staff has a state full of parks to run. Most of the operating budget is focused on maintenance and staff, so there will not be a large amount of time or money to put into developing a merchandising line, she said.

“It’s a challenge,” LeClair said. “Obviously, parks are here for the long-term, and this is a good step forward in providing more ways for the state park system to be self-sufficient. We see this as a program that could grow over time and perhaps provide a significant source of revenue.”

Other states’ park systems have used merchandise as a way to turn a profit for some time.

The park departments in some states, like New Hampshire, are entirely self-sufficient using park service fees and merchandise.

The goal is for Alaska’s state parks system to follow suit and transition to completely stop using general fund dollars, LeClair said.

The division is already about 40 percent of the way there, with all its current collections coming from fees for public use cabins, boat launches and other park facilities, she said.

The fees came in at about $3.7 million in 2015, a little more than half of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation’s $7 million budget, she said.

The sideline benefit to selling merchandise branded with the state parks’ logos is marketing. Other states have discovered this as well, LeClair said.

“That’s what other states have told us, that the bonus is the marketing piece,” she said. “They all got into it to raise funds, but they realized that it was also great for marketing.”

However, the transition is not likely to happen soon. If Walker signs the bill, the legislation will become active 90 days later.

Additionally, the state’s fiscal year begins on July 1, so it may be the fall before anything gets started, said Division of Parks Director Ben Ellis during an address to the Kenai River Special Management Area advisory board Thursday.

“We will not be able to secure a procurement … until after July 1,” Ellis told the board. “There are some timing issues, as well as (the fact that) we’re still working on a business plan.”

The Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, like other state departments, is facing cuts to the tune of 3 percent, if the Legislature does not cut any further than the governor recommended in his initial budget.

That translates to one temporary administrative position in Kodiak and one permitting position in the director’s office, LeClair said.

For now, the merchandising program won’t be an enormous push — the director’s office is still evaluating how to go about it, LeClair said.

“We can’t divert a lot of funding and staff and resources into a large program because we have a state park system to run,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s use what resources we have and put what we think is reasonable into this.’”

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.