Leave it to government: If someone’s business is becoming too successful and is attracting crowds, we can’t let that happen.
That is cause for a tax or a regulation. Or both!
So it will be with Sarasota’s kayak tour operators who are satisfying customers who love to paddle through the beautiful mangrove tunnels at Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key.
In due time, they will become yet another business under the coercive sledgehammer of government, Sarasota County government in this instance. County commissioners voted 4-1 two weeks ago to impose a $500 per kayak per year fee on kayak-tour operators.
That, by the way, puts Sarasota County at the top of the most onerous kayak regulations in Florida. And, it is yet another example of how unimaginative bureaucrats can be when it comes to addressing market opportunities.
Yes, this was and is an opportunity.
(As an aside, thank goodness there was one market-oriented voter on the commission: Joe Barbetta.)
Start with the issue: The kayak tours are popular. Demand for them is high. The environmental surroundings are peaceful and almost other-worldly, a paradise of escapism into nature.
With more and more people drawn to the mangrove tunnels, the limited parking becomes crowded at times with the tour operators’ kayaks and trailers.
Park visitors complained the tour operators were consuming (for free) too many of the parking spaces.
This prompted the county parks and recreation staff to take action to ensure ease of access for the public to the launch site.
The staff’s answer: Make the tour operators pay and regulate their usage.
The thinking is not only would a hefty fee discourage excessive kayak-tour usage, county staff reasoned the fee would have another beneficial effect: reduce the effects of too many kayakers on the pristine waters and mangrove tunnels.
Clever. Problem solved. As we all know, any time you raise the price on any good or service, you get less of it.
So the county staff recommended the $500-per-kayak-per-year fee.
At this point, let’s be fair about the way this situation is viewed. To a great extent, the kayak-tour operators are like Gulf fishermen and what is commonly referred to as the “tragecy of the commons.” They are using a limited public resource (the park and parking lot) essentially for free for their monetary gain. And because they pay little to utilize this “common” property, they will do what most people do when a resource, good or service is free — over-utilize it. Like fishermen depleting the Gulf of a popular fish.
So, yes, the kayak-tour operators should pay something. And to their credit, many of the tour operators agree. But the $500-per-kayak fee is excessive, punitive and, frankly, the wrong choice.
Reacting hastily to their staff’s recommendations, the commissioners missed better options.
For starters, how can the County Commission justify charging the kayak-tour operators a fee when recreational boaters pay no fee to park their SUVs and boat trailers and launch their boats at the public launches on City Island and the 10th Street boat launch?
To be sure, considering the size of many of the boats, the wear and tear to the parking lot, launch and bay waters are likely greater at those boat launches than is the wear and tear from the kayak operators.
Beyond that, take a look at the aerial photograph above. It shows the parking lot at Ted Sperling Park. But literally adjacent to the park and parking lot is a large vacant tract. You can’t see it in the above photo, but directly across from the entrance to the park at Taft Drive and Boulevard of the Presidents is another vacant lot.
If crowded parking is such an acute problem, surely these properties could be options to alleviate congestion.
What’s more, if the tour operators are so prevalent that they preclude individual visitors from having access to the kayak launch, there is ample property nearby to create a second launch, perhaps an exclusive one for the commercial operators.
Which brings us to the opportunity in front of the commissioners’ and park staff’s faces. Rather than look at this situation from the negative, as one that requires restrictions, limitations, punitive fees and discouragement — the way county staff looked at it, try the opposite approach.
The county has an extraordinarily attractive, valuable venue, much like a museum or theme park, for which consumers and tourists are willing to pay to paddle kayaks and enjoy the majestic scenery. The question the County Commission should have been asking its parks staff is: What can be done to get more of what is already occurring? And can it generate enough revenue to be self-sufficient?
Start with the latter question. Yes, Ted Sperling Park can be self-sufficient — if properly managed.
Second: What can be done to increase the number of visitors and make the park an even more popular venue for residents and visitors? Privatize the park; and expand it. Or at the very least, lease the park to a private operator, or, say, a cooperative of kayak-tour operators.
This is what dozens of states and communities have done successfully all over the country. The U.S. Forest Service has created whole-park private concessionaires. While the Forest Service retains ownership of a recreation area, it maintains strict control of a park’s character, natural areas, facilities and services. The concessionaire leases the facilities and operates them for profit.
In an arrangement such as this, you eliminate the “tragedy of the commons” and replace it with “selfish interest.” That is, it would be in the for-profit concessionaire’s self-interest to maintain the quality of the mangrove tunnels and surrounding environment. Leave it up to the concessionaire, who is acting with the incentives of a property owner, to work out financial and physical arrangements with the kayak-tour operators. They would decide what fees would be paid — so everyone wins.
Use some imagination and innovation, commissioners. You’re paddling up the wrong stream with the $500 fees.