Privatization of Wichita city parks

In a post concerning the possible privatization of City of Wichita parks maintenance, I called for, in a rather oblique way, privatization of city parks. A commenter picked up on this and wrote “I’m wondering how the parks would be decided by the market. Wouldn’t the parks have to charge an entry fee in that case?”

It’s a good question. Broadly, what would happen if the City of Wichita decided not to provide public parks? Would there then be any privately owned parks? What would these parks be like, if there were any?

As there are very few examples of privately-owned parks in America, we don’t really know how privately-owned parks would work. But that’s no reason we shouldn’t consider this idea.

The first thing we need to do is to dissuade ourselves of the false notion that the present system of municipal parks means free parks. They aren’t free. They seem to be free — or nearly so — to those who use them, because there is no admission fee charged.

One way that private parks might work is that their owners would charge an admission fee. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there would be an impenetrable fence surrounding the park and a toll gate at the single entrance. There could be other ways to collect admission fees.

Another way that a private owner might generate revenue and potential profit through owning a park is by the selling of concessions. Besides the obvious selling of food and drink, some other examples come to mind. A vendor might rent lockers for the storage of bicycles, so that it would be convenient for people to drive to the park and use their bicycles.

Vendors might rent roller skates. I rented these in college on the KU campus, and it was fun. Other things could be rented too, even paddle boats on the Little Arkansas River, as in the old days.

A private park might offer nanny service, so parents could drop off their young children for a session of supervised play.

A private park would probably provide security services so that its patrons feel safe. Would people be willing to pay for that?

A private park might sell advertising or sponsorship. Philanthropy could play a role, too.

So there could be many ways in which private parks could operate.

While the goal of private park owners would usually be to attract many people to patronize their parks, private owners would be able to exclude people from the park. Advocates for the present parks workers say that the workers clean the public parks of needles and syringes. This indicates that at present, the parks are used for activities that most people, especially families, don’t want to be around. Would a private owner of a park have an incentive to keep his park free of illegal drug users? Absolutely — and much more so than it appears the Wichita police do. And being privately owned, the owner would have the right to exclude drug users, noisemakers, smokers, beer drinkers, panhandlers, fornicators, proselytizers, sidewalk preachers, politicians, and others from his park. He could even impose a dress code.

(Which reminds me of a joke: A conservative said, “I am distressed by the idea of fornication in public parks.” The libertarian replied, “I am distressed by the idea of public parks.” )

Privately-owned parks would bring benefits, the nature of which we really can’t foresee and predict. Entrepreneurs are highly motivated to discover and meet consumer wishes and demands. They can experiment to see what works. The costs of their failures are born only by them. When public officials take risks and fail, they’re criticized for wasting public funds. This is a reason why little innovation comes from government.

By unleashing entrepreneurial creativity, there might be a tremendous diversity of parks springing up with features we can’t even dream of now.

Entrepreneurs don’t have to go through plodding approval of long-range plans as Wichita recently did with its Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (PROS) plan. This plan, according to its brochure, took 18 months to develop. How will it be funded? According to a memo accompanying the plan, “Present funding levels are insufficient to adequately cover the costs of the Department’s current facilities and programs.” I don’t sense much groundswell of support for raising revenue to increase this funding. So are we left to conclude that the method of public funding of the parks is failing? It seems so.

Back to my post from the other day: Another commenter wrote that the views I hold are those of “free-market extremists.” To which I reply: thank you for noticing.

This writer also wrote: “Hence, if there is no market or capitalistic value for parks, then why have them at all.”

This is my point. If people don’t value parks enough to pay for them as they use them (or let private owners profit in ways that I described above, or in other ways), then we’re faced with the situation we have today: First the government taxes everyone. Then politicians, bureaucrats, and a small group of enthusiasts decide how much recreation the people should have, and where and in what form.

I ask you: could anything be more extreme — not to mention counterproductive — than this?


7 thoughts on “Privatization of Wichita city parks”

  1. I didn’t label you a free-market extremist, but since you willing took the label, I guess wear the shoe that fits. I guess we will agree to disagee. Your blogs and opinions are informative and to a certain extent on target; however, more often than not you seem to think that we no longer have a representative government.

    For example, you make this comment above, “First the government taxes everyone. Then politicians, bureaucrats, and a small group of enthusiasts decide how much recreation the people should have, and where and in what form.” The problem that many have, although not necessarily you, is that they are not engaged in the political process. Most of the public pays little attention to the dealings of the government. They just want to go about their lives and be left alone. Voter apathy is readily apparent given the number of registered voters relative to those that can vote and also given the number of registered voters who actually vote.

    Nonetheless, the elected officials are there to represent everyone. If a person wants to be heard, then become engaged in the process. However, extremists, far left or far right, don’t have much success because they often don’t respect or can’t see anyone’s perspective but their own. Politics is the art of compromise and extremist often don’t know how to compromise whatsoever. Unless one is willing to become engaged, have respectful, substantive dialogue, is willing to consider different perspectives and is willing to compromise, they’re not going to get very far.

    I’m not so jaded as to believe that our local government is controlled by a limited few. For the most part, I believe our local officials to a pretty good job at balancing a myriad of interests. It is a thankless job quite frankly.

    As to the park privatization issue, your comments are fundamentally flawed to begin with. Being a free market person myself in most things it makes the most sense. Furthermore, I’m also generally of the opinion that if it makes so much sense then the private sector would already be doing it. In other words, if the private sector could profit and do things better, then they would. As we know, they do and yes they make money. An example would be entertainment theme parks such as Six Flags. A more localized example would be a ski club that leases a lake for recreational skiing.

    However, in some cases, such as our city’s park system, privatization doesn’t make sense. Again, if it did, the private sector would already being doing it regardless if the city had parks. The fact of the matter is that most of the city’s parks are used for leisure activities that produce little if any income. If the city’s park system didn’t exist, people would pursue these activites elsewhere and not necessarily in a for-profit environment. Also, I’m not sure that there is a prohibition against anyone setting up shop at say Riverside Park and leasing bicycles for use in the river corridor. So for-profit business and public parks can and do co-exist.

    Privatization of the parks is not the answer because it wouldn’t work. The real questions are, “is there public benefit in the city parks?” and, “should we continue to fund them at all?”

    Government can and does play an important role in providing services and opportunities to the whole that might not be available otherwise. Things like police and fire protection, emergency services, public infrastructure such water, sewer, roads, and yes parks.

  2. I agree with Pat and I consider myself a free-market libertatian. Bob, what about memorials and places of historical significance. Do you believe Civil War battlefields should be protected and preserved? Or do you believe it is ok to build commercial businesses over them? Do your ideas carry over to state and national parks?

  3. I view the pool, and kids play area (park??!!) provided by my homeowners associations as a quasi private park. People are willing to pay dues (and move into an area) that provides the services. I would argue that this is the direction parks are going. I would use use a public park for the reasons mentioned above, but I gladly pay my homeowners dues for the recreation araes we have.

  4. Bob, my perception of what you are saying is that parks should not be a part of a governments budget because they are under funded. That parks should be privatized and only those who can afford to participate will enjoy a park. Should we privatize all other government systems that are under funded?
    In Wichita that would mean only those that could afford police protection would have that service. We would be paying tolls to travel on all our streets and bridges that would be owned by “an entrepreneaur. Your need to return to the 1850′s where the citizens carried a gun for protection is extreme and not real. Would you also have us buy fire protection from a neighbor or have a fire wagon in every driveway?

  5. Truman, I didn’t read Bob saying that any of the other things you cite should be privatized too, so you’re sort of over-reacting, don’t you think? Putting words in someone’s mouth when they didn’t say these things is not an honest form of criticism.

  6. I’ll just add my two cents that I completely agree with the idea of privatizing parks. The civil government has no business involving itself in providing “leisure activities,” period. Leave it to the market because the market knows best.

    The most serious critique seems to come from the first commenter: “Again, if it [privatization] did [make sense], the private sector would already being doing it regardless if the city had parks. The fact of the matter is that most of the city’s parks are used for leisure activities that produce little if any income. If the city’s park system didn’t exist, people would pursue these activites elsewhere and not necessarily in a for-profit environment.”

    If the civil government provides something for “free” (i.e., coercively taxes citizens to fund its activities), of course the free market is not going to compete by providing the exact same service. Ergo, the basic model is flawed, as the commenter points out by stating that people would pursue these activities elsewhere, whether in a for-profit environment or not. In other words, people might use their own backyards, their church grounds, farmland in the country, and so forth, for activities that they typically do in “free” (read: taxpayer-funded) parks.

    To say that we should “privatize” the parks is missing the point, somewhat. It is more precisely accurate to say that the land should be sold to the highest bidder in the free market to be used for the most highly valued purpose in the market, whether that is parkland, a business complex, a hospital, a wildlife preserve, or whatever else it might be. Note, it doesn’t have to be a “for profit” purpose, even if the civil government remains uninvolved (e.g., a charity could purchase the park and maintain the grounds with private funding).

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