Should Pennsylvania’s State Parks Serve Alcohol?

Story Stream
recent articles

Pennsylvanians are getting their summer plans ready as Memorial Day nears. They’re thinking about the lakes, the amusement parks, the shore, and extended travel throughout the commonwealth and the country.

Here at home, many Pennsylvanians will visit the state parks system. Pennsylvania is home to one of the nation’s best parks systems. Each year, Pennsylvania’s state parks bring in thousands of visitors. Campsites and cabins sell out quickly.

But we need to revisit the user experience at the state park system. It’s a process that’s already underway.

Pennsylvania recently announced an Office of Outdoor Recreation to explore ways to market and improve the parks system. As communications director for former Gov. Tom Wolf, I consistently opposed this proposal. I was concerned about duplication with Visit PA, the commonwealth’s tourism arm. But more importantly, I was concerned that this well-meaning effort would become a messaging exercise without an associated product improvement.

As a communicator, I understand the power of story, narrative, message, and words. But colleagues often turn to you and ask you to market a product or idea without thinking about improving or better positioning the product operationally. One of the roles of a communicator is to push others to improve the product or service and think about their offerings. It can lead to endless meetings and handwringing about slogans and logos that will inevitably fall flat.

If we want to expand interest in parks, we should look at ways to market the current product better and make it more attractive to new users.

To supplement the Office of Outdoor Recreation, I proposed allowing the sale and consumption of alcohol in state parks in a safe and measured fashion, as we see being done elsewhere in Pennsylvania and across the country. Approximately 30 states, including New York, already allow for the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages in state parks.

In Philadelphia, the city's Parks & Recreation Department has developed a program called “Parks on Tap,” which sections off segments of parks in the city for food and alcohol sales along with games, sitting areas, movies, and small concerts. The format has been a huge success, introducing younger people to the city’s parks system while generating new revenue. Some of the most frequent users of the format have been families.

Pennsylvania should follow suit. The statute that oversees the state parks system allows the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to designate facilities to be operated or leased for the sale of alcoholic beverages. Pennsylvania could develop a commonsense strategy that allows for alcohol sales in state parks in a safe, controlled manner.

The DCNR could work with the Department of General Services and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to build and stock small facilities that allow for the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The facilities could be located in designated areas, and the department could limit consumption to these areas. In Philadelphia, the parks department ropes off segments of the parks and permits sale and consumption only within these limits. This designation allows others to enjoy the park more traditionally and stay away from the use of alcohol if they choose. The areas are also stocked with games and food trucks.

Despite current regulations, we know that park visitors already consume alcohol. We should create an incentive system that allows for safe, regulated consumption. The DCNR could increase fines for illicit consumption and use the revenue from both penalties and sales to pay for more safety officers and improved facilities.

I sympathize with traditionalists who do not want privatization or commoditization of public space. But there are constructive ways to provide visitors with more entertainment and hospitality options, allowing the parks system to grow its user base while preserving the parks and our natural resources.

A portion of the revenue from alcohol sales could go toward paying for an enormous backlog of maintenance needs – estimated at more than $1 billion – as well as toward acquiring additional land for parks in new areas. In last year’s budget, there was funding for three new state parks, but almost all of it was one-time, federal COVID funding. Our parks need sustainable, ongoing funding streams.

Instead of focusing on catchy new slogans or marketing campaigns for state parks, the DCNR should put its energies toward enhancing its already-robust product. The department has plenty of models to follow that already work, whether in other states or in Philadelphia. And it already has the statutory authority to put the change into effect.

The DCNR can lead the way and make our parks more attractive, more inviting, and more fun for thousands of Pennsylvanians. Now that’s a product worthy of a good slogan.

Show comments Hide Comments