GILLETTE — After years in legislative limbo, Hot Springs State Park could be set for some changes.
At Thursday’s meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Recreation and Cultural Resources, officials with the Department Of State Parks And Cultural Resources unveiled the next steps in a long-awaited plan to update one of the crown jewels of the state parks system.
Though no immediate actions were announced, the agency updated committee members on a new law sponsored by the committee chair – Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower – that is widely expected to force action on a pair of vendors, who could now face competition from an outside entity for a contract to operate a business within the park.
Losing out on one of those contracts would result in the business having to sell their facilities – their hotel, their mineral pool, everything – to the winning bidder.
Thursday’s update comes years after the release of the agency’s master plan for the parks, which included plans to increase visitation to parks like Hot Springs, which is considered vital for retaining tourists traveling between the state’s national parks in the west and Devils Tower in the east.
Room to grow
Tourism and outdoor recreation are a central part of Wyoming’s economy, driving millions of dollars into the state’s coffers as well as hundreds of thousands of visitors into the cities and towns that dot the vast and open landscape.
While the state’s national parks and monuments – Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Devils Tower – get much of the credit, Wyoming’s state parks and trails system help generate a substantial share of tourism spending in Wyoming. A decade ago, one study conducted by the state showed Wyoming’s state parks and historic sites had a $78 million impact on the state’s economy, supporting 1,123 jobs and generating $3 million in taxes.
However, the parks have been underperforming. In the years after that study was conducted, visitation at the parks declined slightly, prompting a comprehensive study of the state parks system. In 2016, management for Hot Springs State Park announced a 20-year plan for the park, including a massive slate of renovations and improvements to both the park’s public and privately-owned assets.
Over the past several years, those plans have progressed slowly, with few changes to the park. While some vendors in the park continued to operate on multi-year contracts with the state, two facilities – the Days Inn and the Star Plunge – are operating on a month-to-month basis — a limbo they’ve remained in for the better part of the past decade. This arrangement, in effect, prevented any sort of cohesive, long-term plan for the park.
Then, this past winter, the Wyoming Legislature passed Senate File 166, which mandated vendor contracts be a minimum of five years.
“That kind of forced our hand a little bit,” said Darin Westby, director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources.
By the end of the year, both of the businesses will face a choice: join in the bidding process to sign a contract of at least five years, or sell their business to a group willing to manage them for that length of time.
“We’re sensitive to that situation, but we need to enforce our contracts and ensure our visions are being met with the crown jewel of the state park system, as well as an economic driver for the community,” Westby told committee members. “It’s definitely a gateway to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks on the way out, as well as all the way back to Devils Tower.”
Signing a successful proposal
Senate File 166 did something other than enforce mandatory minimum lengths for contracts: it created rules requiring bidders for contracts with the state parks system to submit a strategy with their proposals to help drive visitation to the park and comply with the vision described in the agency’s strategic plan, which took effect in July 2017.
“Based on what they’re willing to put into the facility, what they’re willing to do with our vision and what their vision, finding out whether our visions are aligning … if they are, we’ll select the right one,” Westby said.
Hypothetically, the state could forge its own vision for the park by buying out all four vendors in the park and paying a management company – like Xanterra, which operates facilities in the national parks – to maintain facilities for the parks department.
That solution, however, is unlikely. Combined, all four facilities have a combined appraised value of roughly $10 million and, even then, the facilities would need to be renovated to meet the standards the parks department is currently pursuing.
“$10 million is a lot of money, if that’s even the dollar figure, to go in front of the Legislature and ask for,” said Westby. “Then it’s the infrastructure improvements – if we’re going to tear something down and build up, or just rebuild what we have. There’s a large dollar figure attached to that as well. I don’t know what the governor’s office or the legislative body perspective is on that.”
Though one of the vendors has a potential buyer waiting in the wings, Westby acknowledged that any transaction has to be handled carefully. The businesses have been a visible part of the Thermopolis business community for years in many cases, and several lawmakers warned that a heavy hand was not something they hoped to apply.
“There’s a lot of passion in Hot Springs County,” said Westby. “These companies have been there for a really long time, and we want to be very cognizant and respectful of that community and the businesses that are up there.”