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February 6, 2024

CT to partner with private businesses to boost parks, recreation

YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG Jack Skinner, an employee with a kayak renting business, waits for guests near the Mystic River.

A new effort at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection seeks to draw more residents to the state’s parks by partnering with private businesses and nonprofits to expand recreational services on or near state land.

Under the initiative, known as the “partnership for parks,” Connecticut could see more of its state parks offering activities like disc golf, bicycle and boat rentals or glamping; refreshments at on-site cafes or concession stands; and event planning services for weddings and other gatherings. 

State leaders say the plan takes advantage of one of Connecticut’s largest tourism destinations.

“It’s a win-win,” DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said. “It’s great for boosting small business and other economic development opportunities in the state … It’s a win for DEEP because these are the kinds of extra services and amenities that we don’t have the bandwidth to provide … And most importantly, it’s a win for the public. 

“Now potentially you’re going to be enjoying the same state park facilities, these treasured locations all around the state, but you might be able to take part in a new experience that you’ve never tried before,” Dykes said.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced the initiative last month, and DEEP leaders said they are actively recruiting a director for the newly-established Office of Outdoor Industry and Experiences, which will coordinate public-private partnerships. 

DEEP is also currently soliciting information from outdoor recreation providers and other interested parties to understand “the scope of potential concepts current market conditions may support in its State Parks.” It’s holding a webinar regarding the Request for Information on Feb. 6.

Local outdoor industry leaders, who have been advocating for years for more public-private partnerships in Connecticut’s state parks, are enthusiastic about the plan.

“That was the home run right there,” said Neil Johnson, store manager at REI Co-op in Milford and board member with the Connecticut Outdoor Recreation Alliance. “But it’s really just the beginning. Now the hard work happens of [figuring out] what that role is able to collaborate on — and derive results around — for the benefit of the state of Connecticut and the outdoor recreation industry writ large.”

That industry accounts for $4.6 billion in economic activity each year, according to the governor’s office, and it supports more than 45,000 jobs. It’s also been growing since the pandemic, state officials said.

There are currently only a handful of public-private endeavors on state park land: skiing at Mohawk Mountain State Forest, the Essex Steam Train, floating-tube rentals on the Farmington River, canoe and kayak rentals at Burr Pond State Park, and various concessionaires at other parks. 

Johnson said expanding those offerings presents another potential benefit: a new source of revenue for the state.

“There’s been a lot of deferred maintenance in these parks,” Johnson said. “If the economics can be demonstrated as substantial enough to take some of the pressure off of going to the legislature every budget cycle and saying, ‘We need money to do this, we need money to do that,’ then you have a mutually beneficial and self-sustaining environment that benefits everybody.”

There is some concern that adding private services at state parks could lead to overuse. Commissioner Dykes said she believes the new partnerships initiative would actually have the opposite effect.

“Some of our parks are getting loved to death … and yet we have other state parks like Gay City and Hurd State Park, these gorgeous locations that are hidden gems that people just don’t know as much about,” Dykes said.

“One hope that I have through this RFI is that we might be able to work with partners who can offer services at some of those less-well-known parks,” she said, and “provide a solution to this ‘champagne problem’ we have of a lot of enthusiasm from the public about parks but maybe a little uneven awareness.”

The industry wish list

Bruce Donald, a manager with the nonprofit East Coast Greenway Alliance, which works to develop the region’s network of trails, said one of the first things the outdoor industry office should address is the state’s relative lack of campsites.

“We have shockingly little camping, almost none,” Donald said. Many outdoor industry advocates echoed the sentiment. 

In a recent survey, conducted for its periodic Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, DEEP found that 72% of state residents and almost two-thirds of municipal officials rated the state’s camping facilities as “insufficient.” Connecticut offers camping at roughly a dozen state parks. By contrast, more than 30 Massachusetts state parks have campsites.

But Connecticut has a vast system of trails, Donald said, and work is underway to build out even more connections along hundreds of miles of hiking and biking paths.

“We already see a dramatic increase in internal tourism and through-riders, walkers and other users of the trail system who would love to camp and can’t,” Donald said. Public-private partnerships could help fill the void, but “it just needs a little bit of state encouragement,” he said. 

Without that encouragement, Donald and others said, people who want to camp will continue to leave the state to do it.

Nicola Wood, executive director of youth program Outside Perspectives, said she’d like the outdoor industry office to take a broad role — for example, helping outdoor businesses and nonprofits fill staffing needs and serving as an advocate to state lawmakers for regulatory changes that could help outdoor groups thrive. 

“Having a little bit more of a seat at the table to have those conversations with people, just so that they understand while they’re making rules,” Wood said.

The outdoor industry in Connecticut is a tightly knit community, said Mat Jobin, owner of Reach Your Summit, a Simsbury company offering guided hiking trips. “But we haven’t really had a sound foundation or somebody that we can report to” at the state level.

Jobin said he’s hoping DEEP’s new office can help aggregate and disseminate information about all of the state’s outdoor resources and private recreation providers. 

In recent years, online tools like Connecticut Forest and Park Association’s interactive trails map, the Connecticut Coastal Access Guide and the University of Connecticut’s CT Trail Finder have begun to raise awareness and ease park access for more residents. With further input from the industry, Jobin said, “This office is going to … enhance the experience, not just for us as business owners and organizations but also for the general public and people just looking to get out for an hour or two.”

DEEP is already working on that piece of the puzzle. The department has “soft-launched” its new website,, where users can look up a park and find information about nearby businesses and other attractions. 

“That’s something that is very intentional and reflects my focus and passion on helping people to have a better visitor experience when they come to the parks,” Dykes said. “That’s supporting not only getting people outside but also increasing economic development and tourism in our state — and building on that.”

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