EK: Rose, what are your impressions after your first year on the job as New York State’s Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation?
RH: It’s simply a magnificent system. I didn’t know, and I am sure many New Yorkers do not know, the breadth and depth and the majesty of our system, and how it is the second most heavily visited parks system in the country. It’s an honor to be associated with it. The second impression is the commitment of the staff. There are so many members of the parks team that have been here for 25 years or longer, and they’re totally committed to the welfare of the parks and the historic sites.
I’ve been surprised by the fact that historically our system hasn’t been recognized for its huge infrastructure and the huge need for regular and dedicated maintenance. The system has never been part of the capital budget of New York State. During decades of—maybe neglect is the wrong word—but a lack of investment, the system has deteriorated and because it’s the oldest and because it’s the most developed in the country, you can feel that deterioration and it impedes its best uses. I had no idea of the level of that deterioration, or the need for capital and care and regular maintenance.
I’m gratified that, during a difficult economic time, the governor has stepped in to stabilize the parks operating budget. I am excited that he stepped forward to make a large capital infusion, $89 million, which will leverage $143 million of capital improvements. He made that possible and we’re very appreciative of it. It is essential to our program of addressing state parks’ backlog of infrastructure needs.
EK: You are referring of course to state parks’ inclusion in the New York Works Fund, an economic stimulus program that will largely be targeted at the state’s transportation needs—to roads and bridges that are crumbling—and some to environmental infrastructure through the Department of Environmental Conservation. Why do you think state parks were included? What judgment does that reflect on the part of the governor?
The governor and his staff recognized two important park roles. First, he understands that the parks are affordable getaways for the 57 million people who visit them and that they serve people close to home, in their communities. Parks provide a service of recreation, relaxation and connection to nature that is affordable and accessible.
Second, I think Governor Cuomo recognized early on that this infusion of capital will create jobs and serve as an economic boost directly, just in the act of improving the parks, and indirectly as improved parks drive greater visitation, tourism and all the other economic benefits that parks provide to New York State.
EK: Governor Cuomo has embraced “public/private partnerships” to help rebuild and restore state parks and historic sites. What evolution does that reflect and what is its significance?
RH: I believe—and I know the governor believes this too—that throughout every sector of New York State, expanded public/private and public/public partnerships are essential for the future of government and its effectiveness and efficiency. Governor Cuomo is committed to restoring state government’s can-do spirit, but part of that initiative means harnessing private-sector energy wherever possible. With respect to parks, it’s even more important now, particularly as we look at our operating budget and our staffing, to recognize that there are many things that the private sector can do better, even if the agency was fully staffed and flush with resources.
It’s easy to forget that partnerships have long been a part of the parks system. Some of our greatest parks were created through the generosity of private individuals. Take Letchworth State Park, for example, that was assembled by William Pryor Letchworth and donated to the state in 1907. Bear Mountain State Park was created through the donation of 10,000 magnificent acres from the Harriman family, along with financial contributions from other leading citizens. Private individuals have supported programs like our children’s summer camps, and early on we also entered into agreements with businesses to build hotels, restaurants and other services that would deepen and lengthen the state parks experience.
So these partnerships are about leverage, about leveraging our respective strengths, recognizing that all of us have limited resources. There is actually a strong history of partnership from the commissioners and commissions that oversee each of our parks regions as well as private concessionaires that provide many visitor services. It is all part and parcel of what we should be doing anyway.
I see OSI’s Alliance program as a perfect example of a partnership that has and will hugely leverage what we can do, park-by-park and at a statewide level. You’ve already done it in terms of providing support and technical services to our scores of friends groups. You’re focusing on our flagship parks where we hope to put New York Works capital, and you are going out and fundraising, and you are going to match the capital, if not even exceed what we put in. It’s partners like the Alliance that can do that much better than we can. We can focus of the act of spending our money, and you’ll take it and match it and help us with the design and the aesthetics and all that goes into capital improvements.
EK: What do you say to people who are concerned about the commercialization of parks, or who will say that government ought to be providing these services through our tax dollars?
RH: I think there is an understandable nostalgia for the era of big-government solutions. Many of our great public parks and buildings were created through government social and work programs. Times have changed, however, and we need to recognize and even embrace new realities. Private sector participation and energy has been, and will increasingly continue to be, a vital force in state parks. Just look at how philanthropic and corporate giving has restored excellence to New York City’s Central and Bryant Parks, raising the public’s expectations along the way and ultimately benefiting parks citywide. The Governor and I have a similar vision for our storied and beloved state parks.
More specifically, we are looking for private sector partners to provide services to deepen the visitor’s experience. They’re going to be providing programs or they’re going to be investing in historic structures in a way that enhances the parks visit. What’s relevant is what the results are.
Any partnership that we have will of course be governed by strict agreements, and since the only purpose of the partnership would be to better the parks, if it in any way detracts from the parks, we’re not going to allow it.
And many of our partners will be other not-for-profits, like the Alliance, that use volunteers and provide philanthropy. There’s not a corner of any government service that’s not going to benefit from volunteerism and philanthropy, and we should all endorse and embrace that. I don’t worry about commercialism, because we’ll do it deliberately. We’ll have control over it and we’ll have the end goal of the parks in mind.
EK: What’s your favorite park? Which parks have surprised you in some fashion?
I was not familiar with Letchworth, I never knew it was even there, but it is a jewel. It is truly the “Grand Canyon of the East.” It’s tucked into the western New York landscape—you enter it through rolling farmland and all of a sudden come across a beautiful canyon and another world. It’s really spectacular. I have also come to appreciate how as you travel the state, there are so many different types of experiences you can have. Letchworth gives you a kind of wilderness experience, as does Allegany, which I knew before becoming commissioner.
Then there’s Green Lakes State Park, a National Natural Landmark that’s so important to the Syracuse metropolitan region. And, obviously, Fahnestock State Park in the Hudson Valley is very close to home for me. I love and know it well. If you patch Fahnestock, Harriman, Bear Mountain and Sterling Forest together, you have this vast tract of wilderness so close to New York City, which I think is unusual. I love Jones Beach and have taken my family there many times. Coming from the city, I’ve spent a lot of time in Harlem’s Riverbank State Park, but I didn’t know much about Roberto Clemente State Park on the Harlem River in the Bronx.
We have active recreation, urban parks, metropolitan wilderness, and then obviously there’s Niagara Falls. I didn’t know the 35 historic sites well, but they too are incredible. I’d never been to Olana, never been to Clermont or John Jay Homestead. They collectively offer incredible opportunities to educate schoolchildren and families about our New York and U.S. history, and we are forging more connections between sites and schools. There’s nothing better than to have it right there in front of you, to experience it and to be able to touch it, rather than read about it. Our historic sites are spectacular.
EK: You talked about being feeling gratified, but talk about some of the challenges of your job. The $89 million in funding is a really great first step, but what are some of the tougher things to come?
RH: The $89 million—actually the $143 million it will leverage—my hope is that this isn’t a one-time occurrence, but that when we make this happen and see the results and see the need for it, that we’ll go forward with many more $89 million infusions into the capital needs of the state parks system. I hope that parks will continue to be a New York State priority and we will annually address the infrastructure needs of our parks.
Although we are stable, we are reduced in terms of staffing, and fairly substantially so, and a huge challenge will be to reinvent ourselves so we are more efficient, so we can figure out how to manage our parks with fewer resources. We can do it, but it will require a lot of work and some redesigning of our management practices.
It’s also great to talk about public/private, public/not-for-profit partnerships, but we really need to focus on them and tighten them up and understand exactly who does what and what our end goal is. We need to have our partners aligned with our core purposes and together we march forward. In the past some of our partnerships have not been as productive as they might be, so that will be a big deal, to figure out how we can further leverage each other to use our respective strengths. Those are the primary goals that we are going to be working on and every one of them will be a challenge, but with every challenge is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to go forward into a new era for New York’s state parks.