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Restaurants may take too big a bite out of tourism dollars

report on Oklahoma’s state parks indicates a contract between the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (ORTD) and a restaurant management company may be eating away at taxpayer dollars.

The report from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) showed significant growth in expenditures for the state park lodge restaurants through a contract with restaurant vendor Swadley’s.

“Nearly $6 million in expenses were related to construction costs, management fees, and reimbursements,” the report’s authors wrote. “OTRD also covered more than $2 million in operational losses for the contracted restaurant vendor. Recent expenditures on several restaurants located within state parks exceed Parks’ estimate of the restaurant’s replacement value multiple times.”

Members of the LOFT Oversight Committee questioned ORTD director Jerry Winchester at a meeting Thursday. He acknowledged the losses but said they knew when they opened the restaurants that they would be operated at a loss.

Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, asked LOFT officials about the contract between ORTD and the restaurant vendor.

“We did take a look at the contract and thought there were some irregularities with the current restaurant concessionaire but we did not make a determination in that specific contract,” said Mike Jackson, LOFT’s executive director.

The OTRD is going back and auditing vendor invoices, said Ben Davis, ORTD’s executive deputy director.

ORTD’s investment strategy is not consistent with customer data, according to LOFT’s report.

“Using either independent survey data from 2017 or OTRD’s internal data, the amenities selected by respondents as being most important to their visit were things that require a low level of investment, such as camping sites, clean bathrooms, hiking and watchable wildlife,” the authors of the report said. “Parks has placed an emphasis on improving lodges, restaurants, cabins, yurts, and other accommodation assets.”

ORTD is asking for an additional $19.3 million in its fiscal year 2023 budget to help operate its 33 parks.

LOFT recommended “freezing capital expenditures for OTRD until completion of an asset inventory.”

“Afterwards, the Legislature may consider requiring approval for purchases of capital assets valued at $1 million or more,” LOFT said in the report.

ORTD also should align its spending to its purpose, LOFT said.

“Oklahoma could pursue a singular vision for its state park system, either prioritizing access and land preservation or developing centers of tourism. But there are opportunities for Oklahoma to adopt a pronged approach that recognizes the different purposes of the varied parks within the system,” LOFT said in the report. “Aligning the Legislature’s intent with targeted investments toward each park function may strengthen and stabilize the overall park system, and clarify Parks’ mission.”

This article was originally posted on Restaurants may take too big a bite out of tourism dollars

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