“We’ve got to fix the hole in the bottom of the pond. We’ve got to fix losing money.”
A recent excursion by Pulaski Town Council to Gatewood opened some eyes among council as to the opportunities at the town-owned park. It also helped to focus council’s attention on the thousands of dollars being lost at the park every year.
Councilman Jamie Radcliffe brought up the issue at last week’s council work session.
“What do we have to do to quit losing so much money at Gatewood,” Radcliffe asked. “I think each of us know that government can’t run anything like that (Gatewood) and it ever break even.”
Radcliffe said council needs to explore what else the town can do at the park for citizens that visit it.
“Whether it be to leave it open through November, add a zip line or a pool. But before we do any of that, we’ve got to plug that hole. We’ve got to figure out how to quit losing these thousands and thousands of dollars,” Radcliffe said.
Radcliffe said he’d like to be “very aggressive” concerning the park, possibly by privatizing it.
“Somebody has to step up and say it’s because we have these people tied to it with salaries that you have to overcome before you can break even. I don’t really care if we don’t make a dollar on it, as long as we at least break even and have a good quality camping area for our citizens,” he said.
Councilman Joseph Goodman said he agreed with Radcliffe.
“Any public park like that is going to lose money,” Goodman said. “The issue we have is we’re losing so much money, and we’re not close to breaking even.”
Goodman said the way the town will begin making more money at the park is for more people going there spending money.
“More campsites, more things to do there,” he said.
However, Goodman said there are issues at the park the town needs to deal with.
“People can go out and fish, but they can’t swim so they won’t go there with the kids. We’ve talked about this for a long time. When the water level is low, it makes it hard to have swimming areas. But we can still try to come up with some ways to allow swimming when the water is a certain level or higher,” Goodman said.
He said, currently, the water level is low, but that gives the town an opportunity to create swimming areas.
“A number of campsites can be created for a cabin or a single tent rustic site, and you can come up to those camp sites via walking trails or boat, which hopefully you rent from the town,” he said.
“Unless we do more to attract more people to come to Gatewood and camp and have fun, we’ll continue to see revenues like we have now. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to turn it into Claytor Lake, but we must find a balance between what it is now and what we need it to be,” Goodman said.
Vice Mayor Greg East provided the ugly numbers on the park from the past fiscal year.
East said the town budgeted $227,000 for the park last fiscal year and brought in only $74,000 in revenue at the park, creating a $153,000 deficit for the one year.
East agreed with Radcliffe that Gatewood is indeed a “diamond in the rough.”
“But that ($153,000 deficit) is hard to justify continuously sustaining that kind of loss,” East told council.
East brought up the possibility of a public-private partnership to operate the park, with someone coming in to run the park for the town who has experience with such outdoor activities.
East also noted that of the $227,000 budget, $60,000 goes for maintenance and electrical costs. The rest is primarily salaries, except for a tiny advertising budget of only $1,500.
Goodman touched on another issue that hurts the town’s ability to generate revenue at the park – the fact Gatewood can’t accept credit cards and there is no online system in place through which visitors can reserve campsites.
“There are things we can do, but we’ve got to step out of our comfort zone and try things,” Goodman said. “We could open up streams of revenue we’re not currently capitalizing on.”
East said he didn’t think the Town of Pulaski is the best at operating things like hotels, mini cabins and stores. “I don’t think that’s government’s expertise,” he said.
East said he envisions Gatewood being operated like the county operates Randolph Park, with concessions being contracted out.
“Whoever is running concessions, their expertise is making hamburgers. I’d be willing to guess that Pulaski County is not real good at making hamburgers,” East said.
East said he’d be interested in learning who might be interested in running Gatewood’s camping and store.
“Breaking even is my desire. Doing away with that $153,000 loss would go a long way toward us doing a lot of the things we’d like to do in the town,” East stated.
“Gatewood is a great place, but I don’t think we’ll – as a town government – ever do it as well as it can be done. Calfee Park is a really good example. Operationally, that is – we’re not talking about selling Gatewood – but things have been done there that the town wasn’t meant to do and could never have done in 100 years.
“Town folks benefit from changes at Calfee, but right now folks paying taxes in town aren’t benefiting from Gatewood. Rather, it is a $153,000 burden,” East said.
Town Manager Shawn Utt said there had already been some interest from a few folks in operating the park for the town.
“There are a huge amount of opportunities,” East concluded.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot