HOUSTON – Struggling with debilitating budget cuts and devastating droughts and wildfires, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced Wednesday it is seeking official corporate partners, allowing banks, hotels or other large businesses to use the agency's well-known logo and brand in exchange for cold, hard cash.
While other state park agencies have dabbled with similar ideas or struck corporate sponsorship deals for specific projects, industry officials believe this could be the first time a department that oversees a state's natural resources actively seeks contract-based partnerships.
It is, as they say, a sign of the times.
"Every political entity ... is experiencing some difficult budget times and they're needing to come up with different approaches to maintain the services, and the state parks are no different," said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, responsible for overseeing and maintaining more than 90 parks, as well as issuing hunting and fishing licenses, had its budget cut by $114 million or 17.6 percent in the biannual 2010-12 budget, said Darcy Bontempo, the agency's marketing director. Concurrently, a historic drought parched the state and massive wildfires destroyed thousands of acres of parkland, further sapping revenue.
But when the Legislature cut the department's budget, it also passed a bill allowing the agency for the first time to strike partnerships with corporations. Until now, Bontempo said, corporations donated to or made small, targeted deals with the agency's nonprofit foundation.
Bontempo envisions something far broader. For example, a bank could offer customers a credit card, a cooler could be branded with the TPWD logo or a hotel could become the parks' official hotels, possibly offering discounts to visitors — and all would give a certain percentage to the agency.
"Someone's not going to come hand us money if we can't offer them something that benefits them as much as it benefits us," Bontempo said. "They're going to have to tell us what they think they can execute and what is feasible."
The TPWD's request for proposals targets 10 business areas from banks and insurance companies to hotels and cellphones. Any corporate partner will have to give a minimum of $100,000 to use the agency's brand and logo. From there, each deal will differ, Bontempo said. At the least, if the agency strikes a deal with one business in each category, it will bring in $1 million.
"We'd be very happy about that," Bontempo said.
Shari Boyer, CEO of Good Solutions Group, a Pasadena, Calif.-based agency that works with state park agencies and large cities to create partnerships and sponsorship opportunities, said since departments are not authorized to strike deals, most are funneled through a foundation. The Texas Legislature's decision to give the department the authority to do this is already groundbreaking, she said.
Similar partnerships have been struck in some big cities — including San Diego and Chicago — but not with a state agency, Boyer said. TPWD has a successful marketing campaign with Geico to market its RV parks, Boyer said.
"Given all the financial struggles that parks are dealing with, partnerships are a smart way to try to make up some of the downfall," she said. "This is not putting up billboards in parks, this is not renaming parks, this is finding ways to find a win-win ... that ultimately benefits the visitors."
Already, the Texas parks department has strict guidelines, including not allowing a state park to carry the name of a corporation, Bontempo said.
So, don't expect to see an ExxonMobil State Park along the Rio Grande. Still, the TPWD is bracing to learn a few lessons.
"This is charting new waters so we're prepared to stumble along the way," Bontempo said.
Ramit Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP