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State Parks: Lake Havasu proposal would force more closures

Arizona State Parks is bristling at a late amendment to a bill that would force the agency to lease its most popular park to Lake Havasu City, a move that would be a significant hit to the agency’s already battered budget.

Parks officials say the forced lease of Lake Havasu State Park would result in about a $400,000 swipe to a budget that in December was cut in half due to Legislative funding sweeps.

“If they can pull this off, this is a fortune for (Lake Havasu City),” said Cristie Statler, executive director of Arizona State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money for the parks system. “The loss of net revenue means other parks would close. This would be a devastating blow to the system.”

A striker amendment to H2464, introduced by Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City, would force the state parks board to lease the park to the city for 25 years. In return, the city would pay the state $50,000 annually.

Parks officials say Lake Havasu State Park is set to bring in $1.1 million in gross revenue next fiscal year; after operating and maintenance, net revenue would be more than $400,000. That leftover money then would go to keep open other parks in the system.

By far the most popular recreational draw in the 30-park system, Lake Havasu saw 338,000 visitors in 2009 – almost 100,000 more than Slide Rock State Park in Sedona and more than double the attendance at Kartchner Caverns State Park outside of Tucson.

But Gould and Lake Havasu City officials are skeptical about State Parks’ revenue projections. Indeed, in 2009, the park generated only $38,000 in net revenue, hardly enough money to keep other parks open.

By 2011, State Parks estimates it would have $424,000 left over after expenses. Parks officials said they can reach that figure through cost cutting and increased fees.

“We find it hard to believe that in 24 months they can affect a 1,000 percent increase in their revenues,” said Charlie Cassens, Lake Havasu City interim manager. “We question their numbers and are a little concerned about their business model.”

That business model included at $75 dollar fee hike on the annual pass, and a $5 fee increase for day use.

And that has Gould seeing red.

“It’s like you have a bunch of losing businesses, and you’re going to raise the fee at the winning business to offset that. But when you do that, less people show up at my town,” he said. “So you are going to gouge the people who come to Lake Havasu to pay for upkeep of parks elsewhere.”

Another main reason for the bill is to secure the future of the park, Cassens said. Recent spats over the state budget “produced the very real possibility” that the main boating access to the state park would be closed.

“That whole incident served as a wake-up call to us,” he said.

But State Parks officials say the math is simple. If the agency loses Lake Havasu State Park to the city, the whole system loses out.

“If Ron Gould’s bill passes and we lose that money … we are probably going to have to close more parks. That’s my guess,” said State Parks Board Chairman Reese Woodling.

Already five parks have closed and others have reduced hours due to budget cuts. Depending on funding for fiscal 2011, the state may close more parks.

The parks board’s next meeting is April 21.

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