Georgia Seeks Sponsors For State Parks

Across the country, state parks are closing or reducing hours because of budget cuts. But Georgia wants to turn to the private sector for help. State leaders want Georgia's parks to be sponsored by advertisers in order to keep them open.

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The recession may be easing, but many states still have big budget deficits, and they're coming up with creative ways to make ends meet. In Georgia, officials have decided to allow advertising in parks in an effort to help keep those parks open. As Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports, the idea is getting mixed reviews.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: As the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Chris Clark oversees Georgia's 63 state parks and historic sites. He needs to find money fast.

Mr. CHRIS CLARK (Commissioner, Georgia Department of Natural Resources): Our alternative that we're worried about is not being able to keep our facilities open.

CAPELOUTO: Last year, Clark's department laid off 90 people because of a 40 percent budget cut, but he was able to keep every park open, though at reduced hours. Clark expects even more budget cuts, so he plans to sell advertising to offset the loss.

Mr. CLARK: We've got 125 boat ramps in Georgia, and we've got a lot of great boat dealerships in Georgia that would love the opportunity, probably, to help sponsor and provide maintenance and upkeep for a boat ramp in exchange of some type of sign as you pull in there, small sign that might say this boat ramp support by a donation from such-and-such boat dealer.

CAPELOUTO: Or this hiking trail brought to you by nature outfitter REI. At Sweetwater Creek State Park near Atlanta, Jonathan Carl(ph) is getting ready to take Sarah Bryn Hudgens(ph) on a hiking date. They stop at the trail's entrance, which leads to the park's big attraction, the ruins of an old cotton mill.

Mr. JONATHAN CARL: I'm in public relations, so I definitely know how you can tack on advertisements to just about anything. I certainly don't want to see a Coke sign, you know, advertised on an old mill over here...

Ms. SARAH BRYN HUDGENS: There was a mill back then.

Mr. CARL: Yeah, there's an old pre-, I think it's pre-Civil War mill. So we'll go see that, yeah.

Ms. HUDGENS: I'd be fine with something in the parking lot, around this area, just not once you're actually in what I think of as the real park and on the trail.

CAPELOUTO: Georgia is not alone. New Jersey is considering a similar idea. California already has a few limited corporate sponsorships to help keep parks open. It's an untapped market for businesses. Georgia gets 10 million state park visitors a year. Officials say any ads would be non-intrusive and tasteful. But that still worries Neil Haring(ph). He's a Georgia Sierra Club lobbyist and says there's no room for ads in state parks.

Mr. NEIL HARING (Lobbyist, Georgia Sierra Club): It's a place for people to get away from that. It's a refuge. That's why it's a park. You know, they it would be an amusement park if it was for advertising or a ballpark. There are parks where advertising is appropriate but state parks are not those parks.

CAPELOUTO: Environmentalists also worry that companies accused of pollution could buy some goodwill through their ads. That fear is one reason the National Park Service does not allow advertisements. Park Service spokesman David Bonner(ph) says a federal law was put in place more than 20 years ago.

Mr. DAVID BONNER (Spokesman, National Park Service): Once you say yes to some, where does it stop? You know, can you does it become billboards, neon signs, and it's difficult. So for us, it's just easier to just say no to everyone.

CAPELOUTO: Georgia officials are reviewing bids from marketing firms now and hope to find companies interested in state park advertising by this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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