The city’s largest amenity, Parc Natchitoches, continues to be both an economic driver for the local hospitality industry and a weight on the city’s finances.
The City of Natchitoches responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Natchitoches Times providing a revenue breakdown for June through July of 2022 along with the same figures for the one-year period from June 2021 through May 2022.
A comparison shows the park demonstrated improved financial performance over the most recent two months compared to the previous 12. The combined revenue the park remitted to the city for June and July was $32,939 consisting of sales taxes, rental fees and concession proceeds. During the same two months, the park incurred expenses of $15,544 including wages, utilities, maintenance and other operating costs. This suggests a healthy average monthly surplus of nearly $8,700 for June and July. By comparison, the average surplus for the previous one-year period was under $7,100 per month.
Even as the Parc’s revenues have grown, city officials expressed disappointment; members of the city administration suggested June and July revenues were lackluster compared to the same period of 2021 when the Parc had fewer competitors for youth league sports. Their concerns reflect the fact the summer months are the peak season for the Parc’s attendance, while the athletic facilities close for maintenance during December and January. Accounting for two months of inactivity each year, the average monthly revenue surplus generated by the Parc over the previous 10 month period stands close to the peak season value at nearly $8,500.
Expenses related to the park are more deeply intertwined with the city’s finances than its revenues and expenses would suggest. The city stills owes nearly $13 million in utilities and sales tax revenue bonds with an annual debt service obligation of more than $1.2 million. The more than $100,000 per month debt payments are partially offset by revenues collected from a special taxing district targeting area hotels and motels, but this revenue varies with seasonal tourism. A six-month average for the first half of 2022 equaled only $37,925 per month.
Taking into account revenues, expenses, associated debts and dedicated taxes, Parc Natchitoches siphoned away on average more than $50,000 from the city’s budget each month for the first half of 2022. This value is more than double what the city transferred from its general fund to the Parc Natchitoches fund in fiscal year 2021-22. With the Christmas Festival ahead, there is hope that better days await the special taxing district even as the Parc’s planned maintenance period looms at the year’s end.
Whether Parc Natchitoches should fund itself is an unsettled philosophical debate. Advocates for self-sustaining parks point toward the Presidio in San Francisco, a former military base transferred to the National Park Service(Service (NPS)) in 1994. As a stipulation of the park’s creation, Congress mandated that it become self-sufficient by 2013 or face liquidation. The park achieved this goal ahead of schedule in 2005, but did so as the beneficiary of private largesse that is inaccessible to most public spaces. Along with private donations and visitor center proceeds, the park partnered with entertainment companies such as Lucas Films and the Disney Family Museum to monetize the site’s appeal.
Other well-trafficked public recreational venues tend to generate more value for the cash registers of local businesses and the home values of nearby residents than they collect directly. The park service is home to some of the most heavily visited tourism destinations in the country, and yet requests more than $3 billion dollars annually in congressional appropriations beyond the $1.1 billion dollars it receives from entrance fees, franchise agreements and other mandatory funding sources. For this reason, NPS leadership prefers to compare its budget requests to its economic impact to justify its existence. During 2020, NPS estimated parks, monuments and other sites created an economic boon of $14.5 billion for communities within 60 miles and $28.6 billion nationwide. The park service also claims to have supported nearly a quarter million tourism related jobs and served 237 million visitors in spite of visitation declining nearly 28% because of pandemic travel restrictions during 2020.
Public parks also provide opportunities for local governments to secure outside funding for improvements. As a neighborhood playground, Richardson Park on the corner of Lake and Sewanee Streets was never expected to generate a measurable economic impact from visitors. Despite this, the city’s efforts to rehabilitate the park were recently rewarded with a $400,000 grant to replace aging structures and expand the park’s amenities, including the addition of basketball courts, a walking trail and inclusive playground equipment. The park now promises to serve as a focal point for community activities that will benefit the health and wellbeing of local families.
Parc Natchitoches could also serve as a focal point for public grants and private funding. Already, Lasyone’s restaurant contributes thousands of dollars each month to the city’s finances with an exclusive concessions agreement, yet other sports parks also benefit from on-site sporting goods sales and advertising partnerships. A “Bark for Your Park” grant sponsored by pet product manufacturer Radio Systems Corporation promises $25,000 to four communities nationwide for the creation of dog park facilities. Natchitoches is one of 20 communities vying for this award which can be voted for at https://barkforyourpark.petsafe.com. A link to the site is pinned at the top of the Nachitoches Times Facebook page. Voting closes Aug. 31.
Ultimately, the City of Natchitoches can’t escape the financial realities imposed by Parc Natchitoches, but it can look for ways of building on them.