Negotiations are still under way to determine which organization will take over the operating costs of Morro Stand State Beach campground, one of 70 state parks that had been scheduled to close this Sunday because of state budget shortfalls.
But until a deal is finalized, the park will remain open, and visitors will not see any service changes other than reductions that have already been enacted, said Nick Franco, state parks superintendent in San Luis Obispo County.
“It would be silly to close the park and open it again in two months,” Franco said.
Proposals to take over the park’s operations have been made by Cal Poly and three nonprofit organizations: the Central Coast State Parks Association, Options Family of Services and the Achievement House. The latter two are groups that help people with special needs.
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Franco said that an agreement could be made with one or a combination of applicants, and for any duration up to five years in length. The final contract will be decided by the director of California State Parks, Ruth Coleman, with recommendations from Franco and his department. Franco could not predict when the final decision will be made.
Under the new contract, any new operator could change prices at the park, with State Parks’ approval.
Franco said it was difficult to assess a precise dollar amount that it costs the state to run the 84-space Morro Strand campground, but that the ballpark estimate to keep it open is $280,000 to $300,00 per year.
As of Sunday, Morro Strand will be one of 25 state parks benefiting from $10 million in stop-gap funds approved by Gov. Jerry Brown — what Franco called a “temporary stay of execution” — to remain open until such operating contracts are finalized.
Morro Strand was the only park in San Luis Obispo County slated to close.
Although the campground is no-frills, with each site containing a fire pit, picnic table and a flat spot for a tent and pad for an RV, it does have utilities, two restrooms and trash receptacles that have to be maintained, as well as the costs of fee collection and endangered-species protection.
If the park had closed, it could have cost Morro Bay an estimated $2.5 million a year, according to Morro Bay Mayor Bill Yates. That figure is predicated on about 44,000 campers who use the park each year and each of those campers spending about $60 in the local economy.
Yates told The Tribune in late January, after the city was notified of the closure: "We don't care who operates it; we just want it to stay open. It would be tragic for the city to see that campground closed."
Agreements have already been reached at 40 other parks, and four are still slated to close — Benicia State Recreation Area, Gray Whale Cove State Beach, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Zmudowski State Beach — though officials were working on finding a way to use some of the new funds to keep them open for a few weeks while deals are sought.
The proposed closure of 70 state parks, nearly a fourth of the State Parks system, was intended to cut $22 million from the parks budget as California struggles to bridge a $15.7 billion deficit.
Because Morro Strand was slated to close, it is not currently possible to make reservations online through www.reserveamerica.com, the website that handles booking for State Parks.
The only way for visitors to camp is to obtain sites on a first-come, first-serve basis. All sites are available. “We were booked solid through April, but there are no reservations now,” said Chris Christensen, president of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.