The Christie administration's efforts to privatize state assets moved forward on another front yesterday.
In a request for proposal issued by the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency asked developers to propose a plan for managing and operating concessions, catering and event services at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, one of the most popular parks in the country.
This is the latest effort by the administration to turn over certain functions at state-owned facilities to the private sector, a push that has been criticized by some environmentalists.
Since Gov. Chris Christie took office, the administration has turned over boat rentals at Island State Park to the private sector, as well as state-owned golf courses in Monmouth and Gloucester counties. It also has proposed allowing state forest lands to be cleared of timber, a move that has been put on hold.
With state parks facing a perennial funding crisis, the Christie administration has suggested that privatizing certain functions at the facilities could solve the problem. If a privatization task force appointed by Christie gets its way, the same fate may await Liberty State Park, Island Beach State Park, Wharton State Forest and other jewels of New Jersey's park system. The task force suggested turning concessions over to the private sector, a step that could save the state anywhere from $6 million to $8.2 million.
In a press release issued by the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency depicted the effort as part of an ongoing push to improve services and enhance revenues at all state parks, fulfilling a pledge by Christie to keep all state parks open despite budget problems.
"Running the State Park system is an enormous and expensive challenge, requiring the DEP to operate a myriad of highly diverse facilities that must be properly maintained and safeguarded for use by our residents," said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. " We are looking to increase sustainable funding for our system by better utilizing some of our remarkable spaces, and Liberty State Park is an exceptional example of that."
That view was disputed by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
"The state is taking liberty with Liberty State Park," he said. "The lease is too open-ended, does not have enough safeguards and will benefit the leaseholder more than it will benefit the people of New Jersey. We believe this lease is so open-ended it might be a giveaway of a public resource without adequate public oversight or compensation."
Tittel argued that the privatization of state parks and forests will lead to a loss of public access to open space and historic sites.
For years, conservationists and environmentalists have pressed various administrations to create a stable source of funding for the state's parks, which have a backlog of more than $400 million in capital projects. Martin said some state assets and parks are literally falling apart because of a lack of funding.
The initial term for the management agreement at Liberty State Park will be 10 years, with a five-year renewal option. The successful bidder will be responsible for day-to-day operations of food, beverage and concession sales and catering and events management services.
Liberty State Park is located in Upper New York Bay in Jersey City, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Manhattan skyline. It draws more than 5 million visitors each year.