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Second century of our national parks should be defined by public-private partnerships

Second century of our national parks should be defined by public-private partnerships

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Biden touts St. Louis Arch renovation project

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, center, speaks as Vice President Joe Biden, right, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay listen during a visit to the CityArchRiver project at the Gateway Arch on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Whitney Curtis)

National parks are valuable assets that help states attract visitors, grow local economies, and create jobs.

It was good to learn that Vice President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell would be visiting the Arch.

In the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, Congress encouraged the use of public-private partnerships in the operation of land management agencies, including the National Park Service.

No project is a better illustration of this goal than the CityArchRiver 2015 project right here in St. Louis.

The Gateway Arch attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world each week, and many of the surrounding businesses thrive off the tourism it brings to St. Louis and the region. I was recently there with the Australian ambassador to the U.S.

The $380 million CityArchRiver 2015 project will create a “Park Over The Highway” — allowing pedestrians to traverse the highway that runs in between downtown and Arch grounds. CityArchRiver is a public-private partnership that would fund the construction project through a regional and state partnership involving several agencies, as well as money collected from the new park sales tax approved by voters last year.

The project is the first in the history of NPS with a significant local tax contribution and private donations on and adjacent to NPS grounds. Supported by approximately 85 percent private and local funds and 15 percent federal, the Arch project is one of the largest joint partnership projects in the history of the park Service. The obstacles appear to be about 100 percent federal.

During a U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing for the Interior Department on May 7, 2013, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Jewell said she was willing to look at public-private partnerships “in a different way” in order to encourage all partners to collaborate and work together to successfully move projects forward.

While I appreciate that the park service is in agreement with this goal, words must be put into action. Schedule delays because of slow legal reviews or document processing slow down the project considerably.

Oct. 28, 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of the laying of the keystone of the Arch, and the key date for construction of the new project. However, current proposed schedule changes will delay the Arch project by two months up to one year, which could result in added costs of up to $8.7 million.

One of the project’s latest perils concerns the NPS’s lack of understanding regarding the need for donor recognition.

A meaningful and effective donor recognition program expresses appreciation, acknowledges donor commitment to current and future needs of the park, and leads to future and increased levels of support. Current NPS policy outlines that donor recognition should not commercialize the project, compete with the park’s purpose, or interfere with the quality of the visitor experience. I agree.

However, this policy should not be interpreted in an overly restrictive way that inhibits the full potential of donor contributions. Often, donors are not likely to want recognition that has any impact on the site.

Since Congress created the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916, the donations of philanthropists and private contributions have been vital to the park system. In fact, nearly half of the cost to repair 2011 earthquake damage to the recently reopened Washington Monument was donated by a private donor.

Public-private partnerships must respect how private philanthropy expects contributions to be recognized, invested and overseen.

Additionally, donors expect their contributions to be handled prudently to benefit the project. The use of an escrow funding arrangement with a third party could encourage the leveraging of federal dollars with more philanthropic dollars and give confidence that donor contributions will be managed wisely and held strictly for the purposes intended.

It’s time we revisit NPS practices requiring the deposit of donations directly into the U.S. Treasury before the advertisement of bids and the prohibition on third party escrows of the fund.

The CityArchRiver project can be a prototype for the next 100 years of how the national park system should work — through partners that have more invested than the government does.

The site serves as a model of public-private partnership greatly contributing to the Gateway Arch experience, not only for the people of St. Louis, but for visitors around the world.

It is through the success of collaborative efforts like this that we can prolong the legacy of America’s national parks for future generations, while benefiting the economic health of communities and states across the country.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., currently serves on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior.

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