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ICYMI: Looking To The Historic Leasing Program To Alleviate The Maintenance Backlog In National Parks

By U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)

The Hill

America’s crown jewels are its national parks. Touted as America’s best idea, the National Park Service is responsible for managing hundreds of units nationwide, encompassing more than 85 million acres in each state and territory of the United States. The national parks are part of our nation’s ethos, and touch millions each year with their rugged beauty.

However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for our national parks to be kept in the condition that Americans expect. Our parks have been “loved to death,” as increasing visitation and aging infrastructure has put these sanctuaries in jeopardy. Across the entire parks system, nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance projects continue to languish. In Yosemite National Park alone, there are nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance.

Congress is currently considering options to address this maintenance backlog and put our national parks on the pathway to eliminating the backlog, restoring our public lands to the condition that the American people expect and deserve. As we explore these options, however, it is up to Congress to ensure that every tool in the toolbox is used to maximize each taxpayer dollar spent on our parks.

One of these tools is the National Park System’s historic leasing program. Currently, about 350 structures are under lease agreements across the National Park System. Under this program, unused or dilapidated buildings in the parks are leased to local businesses, which pay lease fees to the park service – providing needed revenue – while also removing the maintenance of buildings from the park service balance sheets. This impact is twofold: not only are taxpayers spared the expense of refurbishing historic structures, but local communities benefit from increased economic activity and more local jobs.

Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is a perfect example of the historic leasing program providing both a service to a local community, while reducing the deferred maintenance and taxpayer obligation at the park. Of nine historic thermal bathhouses along Central Avenue – known locally as “Bathhouse Row” – Hot Springs National Park has leased eight of the structures to local investors. Businesses located in the historic bathhouses range from a boutique hotel to a craft brewery, with each lessee responsible for the rehabilitation costs and ongoing maintenance.  One of the businesses, Quawpaw Baths and Spa, opened in its namesake building in 2008. The building was vacated in 1985 and required more than $3 million in renovations before reopening. While it may seem like a large investment, management reported profitability since its second year of operation. Further, the $3 million spent by the investors, and the yearly cost of upkeep they pay to lease the structure, are kept off the balance sheet for the park.

In addition to reducing the backlog at our national parks, the historic leasing program has proven to be beneficial to the local communities surrounding the park units employing the program. For the city of Hot Springs, which suffered a devastating fire in February 2014, the businesses established by the historic leasing program anchored a recovery from catastrophe that may have crippled other small towns. The leased bathhouses along Central Avenue not only kept tourists coming to the region, but they encouraged other entrepreneurs to locate their businesses in downtown Hot Springs. Despite the fire, tourism in Hot Springs National Park has increased by nearly 18 percent since 2013, while investment in downtown area surrounding the park has grown by $80 million since the fire. This investment has resulted in new jobs, and new economic prosperity for the community surrounding the park.

The historic preservation leasing program is just one of many tools to address the deferred maintenance backlog, and that is why the House Committee on Natural Resources will hold a hearing in Hot Springs National Park on Monday (Sept. 17). The field hearing will be an opportunity to listen to local leaders and learn lessons that can be shared across the National Park System through an expansion of the historic leasing program. As the example of Hot Springs National Park demonstrates, this program can be used not only to reduce the maintenance backlog but stimulate local investment at the same time.

Rob Bishop is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and Bruce Westerman is chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight.