Financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and to educate the public about its importance.

FOF now Master Concessionaire

by Patrick Higgins

It’s been 2 years in the making, but FOF is now Master Concessionaire for the Fakahatchee!

These are exciting times for the Friends and for the future administration of our beloved park. On July 18th the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sent out a letter to all the known current commercial operators utilizing the park’s resources notifying them that FOF had been selected to manage the provision of all visitor services in the park, in effect to act as the park’s air traffic controller. A concession launch meeting was held in the Park Office on the 29th of August attended by 17 commercial representatives and facilitated by Valinda Subic, our District IV Bureau Chief, our Park Manager and 2 Bureau of Operational Services Partnerships Specialists from Tallahassee.

The purpose of concession operations is generally to provide visitor services that a park would other otherwise be unable to offer, thereby enhancing the visitor experience and fulfilling fundamental visitor needs. In so doing it’s usually also to generate additional revenue for the Park Service with the money going to Tallahassee. There are two major differences in our contract with the DEP; (1) the lion’s share of the revenue will be retained by us so that after administrative expenses it can be reinvested by FOF directly in park, its facilities and our conservation and education programs, (2) it also involves providing the Park Manager a mechanism to regulate access and protect the resource via a permitting system.

Naturalist Patrick Higgins, shown at right, points out a 500-year old cypress tree to Naples Yacht Club visitors.

Another benefit is that it will increase park entry receipts as we will be collecting the $2 fee centrally from the commercial operators on behalf of the DEP. There was a problem in the past with non-compliance in our largely ungated park. Gate receipts are important as they are one of the measures used by Tallahassee when deciding how to allocate resources. It isn’t our intention to expand our own tour programs, but rather to work with and develop the existing base of excellent commercial operators to meet the growing needs of the public, which will only increase when the new Boardwalk facilities are opened.

At the launch meeting the commercial operators were invited to enter into Independent Subcontractor Agreements with FOF that include activity and location specific operating permits. This is through a four-class permit system with varying annual permit fee and commission levels; Class ‘A’ for the majority of operators including paddling adventures, bicycle tours, swamp walks, organized hikes etc., Class ‘B’ aimed mainly at the small van operators who include a Boardwalk stop as just one of several activities in an all-day tour, Class ‘C’ for special events like the Everglades Ultras, and a Class ‘D’ for food operations such a potential future food truck at the expanded boardwalk site.

Nobody likes change, but this was not a shock to the park’s commercial operators as they had all been invited through a public Call for Business Plans to submit their own proposals for concessions operations back in November 2017. Generally, the news was received graciously and there were more questions on detail than kick-back. The commercial operators also responded well to our cooperative marketing plans, after all their success will be our success. These include creating a digital storefront on our website for their services with links back to their own websites, distribution of their rack cards in our visitor center and soon-to-be-built interpretive pavilion and a QR code and other links on soon-to-be-installed 5 new information kiosks. They also didn’t miss the point that they will be able to advertise to their eco-tourist clients that a portion of their ticket price will go into park support, education and conservation programs – an increasingly important consideration to many visitors.

There was an enormous amount of work required to prepare for the launch, from drafting subcontractor agreements to creating applications and activity reporting forms. After the launch meeting Valinda Subic and the representatives from Tallahassee complimented FOF on how well we were prepared for the launch – saying that we were in better order at this stage than many commercial concession organizations, so special thanks to my other members of the concession team, Francine Stevens, Andrew Tyler and Glen Stacell and to our pro bono legal consul, Mark Slack of Woods, Weidenmiller, Michetti & Rudnick.

With effect from the 1st of November 2018 all commercial operators must have a FOF-issued permit to conduct any activities in the park and will have to display a permit badge on their vehicles evidencing this. However, to ease the transition FOF will not be charging commissions on any tours until January 2019, although the $2 park entry fee per visitor must still be paid in the interim. FOF has begun to receive and process permit applications. These initial permits will be valid through 31 December 2019. Full details of our permitting program can be found in the new Concession section of our website, including the PowerPoint handout from the launch meeting.

The concession is going to put FOF in a position to do so much more. So, it’s heads down for the FOF concession team and Park Manager to ensure that the concession brings benefits for the park, our commercial partners and visitors alike, and to ensure a smooth start-up.