Photo by Tim O'Neill
This photo of Christmas at the Cody's at Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, 2005, was on the cover of Nebraska Life magazine.
Photo by George Lauby
Closed sign, 2013
Photo by George Lauby
Sen. Tom Hansen
The state Game and Parks is taking the wrong approach at the wrong time to Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, former superintendent Steve Kemper says.
Kemper retired in 2011 after 10 years overseeing the state park in North Platte. Altogether, he worked 43 years with the Nebraska historical parks, most of them as a superintendent. When he retired, he received a Citation of Achievement -- the highest conservation honor given by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Kemper told the Bulletin that the Nebraska Game and Parks Department should have enough money for Buffalo Bill State Park to remain open year around, if the parks department is operating properly.
In late August, the state agency made a Grinch-like announcement that the historical park would close for the fall, winter and spring, from Sept. 16-May 1.
The closure prompted several adjustments in North Platte to save the annual "Christmas at the Cody's" celebration. In October, local officials agreed to send the state money to subsidize the celebration, instead of the other way around.
Annual "history days" gatherings for students on May 1-2 are also in jeopardy. On those days, thousands of fourth graders from all over Lincoln County visit Cody's historical park as well as the nearby Lincoln County Historical Museum. It takes a several days to prepare, organizers say.
For 3-4 days during "Christmas at the Cody's", the historic manor where the Cody family lived and the big barn that housed livestock for the Wild West Show are decked inside and out with holiday finery. Christmas gifts as well as historical items are displayed in an authentic Old West setting, with roasted chestnuts served up and buggy rides around the park.
From 1,200-1,900 people attend each year, according to park officials and the North Platte and Lincoln County Visitor’s Center.
Until now, non-profit groups have helped decorate rooms and string lights, handed out information to visitors, and received a share of admission revenues.
Under the new arrangement, businesses and non-profits will not receive any of the admission revenue, and businesses are asked to rent a room for around $250.
Local groups will have to come up with $9,000 and pay it to the state.
Kemper thinks the Game and Parks Department has created a ploy and overstated their concerns to make money.
"I think they have dollar signs in their heads," he said. “I’m having trouble seeing a shortfall (in the Buffalo Bill park budget.) Personnel costs have gone down. I’m retired. My former assistant Aric Riggins became superintendent when I left, but he was transferred earlier this year to southwest Nebraska. With the two highest paid employees gone, expenses to operate the park should be minimal.”
The Nebraska Game and Parks budget in 2012-13 allocated $45,000 to operate and maintain the park and the nearby recreation (camping) area on the bank of the North Platte River.
Another $200,000 was budgeted for wages and benefits, but Kemper questions if that much would have been needed, since both he and Riggins were gone.
“I really question that,” he said. “There were years, not long ago, when we operated on a total budget of $175,000 a year.”
And, he said the costs to operate Buffalo Bill Historical Park for Christmas at the Cody’s are minimal.
“The utility bills never spiked much, because minimal heat had to be maintained anyway,” he said. “The temperature in the historic home is kept around 55 degrees in the winter, for obvious reasons. Bumping the thermostat up to 65 wasn't a big deal.
He said it is doubtful that the gas and electrical service together increased more than $150 a month for November and December.
"We always closely monitored expenditures for the event,” he said.
Kemper said most of the Christmas lights were converted to LED.
"We had completely moved away from any incandescent lighting except for about 36 bulbs on the large barn star,” he said.
Even considering slight increases in electric rates during the past two years, at most it would cost an extra $200 a month in utilities to keep the park open during the very coldest winter months, he said.
Kemper said it is “theatrical to pick on selected sites to illustrate the fact that the Game and Parks Department needs more funds. It’s not a good way to run the system. If you need to raise money and cut back some services, well then, the right way is to prove it with real numbers. It is not something to play politics with.”
Sen. Tom Hansen agreed.
“It seems like we (in the Legislature) would always hear about Game and Parks projects in the news media, instead of someone from the department coming before the appropriations committee,” Hansen told the Bulletin. “They continue to buy land along the river for hunting and recreation, but cut back in other parts of the state.”
“I never thought they would shut down Buffalo Bill Historical Park,” Hansen said. “If they can’t maintain what they have, they should not be buying more.”
Hansen said the closures of the parks are “like Washington D.C. during the government shutdown. They cut things to draw attention, just to make it seem terrible.”
The Game and Parks directors also closed 24 recreation areas, besides Buffalo Bill, around the state on Sept. 1. Many are at small state lakes along I-80 that don’t take much time or money, according to the Game and Parks 2012-13 budget.
Four of the recreation areas that were closed in September cost nothing to operate. They are Cheyenne, DLD and North Loup (all near Grand Island) as well as Blue River near Seward.
Six other areas cost less than $1,000 a year to operate. Three more cost less than $2,000/year.
So, closing those 13 areas would only save a total of $9,000 if they were closed year around.
The estimated savings from the September-April closing of the other 11 recreation areas amounts to around $80,000, based on an estimated savings of 50% of yearly expenses.
Closing the five historical parks, which are much bigger and have been staffed year around, could save an estimated $1 million, using the same 50% estimation. Altogether, the expected savings is a blip (2.6%) in the Game and Park Department’s $23 million budget.
The department is not down to its last dollar either, with around $10 million in reserve, according to 2012-13 budget documents.
Kemper said the closures are bad for Nebraska.
“With the big push to improve tourism, closing an attraction such as Buffalo Bill Park is like shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said. “The same with the other historical parks.”
Kemper is also concerned with the security of historical items at the parks, given reduced staffing from September-April.
Most alarmingly, Kemper said the closures signal an abrupt departure from long-standing state park procedure to contribute to parks, not take from them.
Nebraska parks are traditionally 70 percent self-funded by fees, cabin rentals, concessions and so forth. The other 30 percent comes from state general funds. It is considered a fair investment of state funds, given the amount of tourism the parks system generates and the amount of recreation the parks provide.
Kemper said 30,000 people attended Buffalo Bill State Historical Park in 2010, with about 5% coming from foreign countries. He said Buffalo Bill attracts the interest of Europeans who have heard of the Wild West Show that toured the continent. They want to see the home of the show.
Kemper said Nebraska’s state parks were never intended to be totally self-supporting.
By state statute, the parks are to provide balanced recreation for all citizens of Nebraska. State parks provide a public service, and accordingly, receive some public funds. The private sector cannot make parks cash flow, he said.
Kemper also points out the contributions that the Lincoln County community has already made to Buffalo Bill State Park.
“When I think of the Kuhlman ranch family deciding to sell the Cody property to the state, with the local community raising half of the funds for the purchase; the formation of a friend's group (foundation) that raised money and purchased expensive Cody memorabilia; and finally, the continuing volunteerism demonstrated by the community in helping with ranch activities through nearly 50 years, this $9,000 payment seems criminal,” he said.
Even after closures and spending reductions of five years, the Nebraska park system has $30 million in deferred maintenance projects stacked up, deputy director Tim McCoy said when the closings were announced.
Kemper is at a loss to understand why that much maintenance was ever deferred.
“All at once you have $30 million in deferred projects?” he said. “I don’t buy it. Park superintendents have always been required to submit deferred maintenance lists, which are constantly monitored and addressed.”
“To have that much deferred – well, that just seems like an exorbitant claim,” he said.
The state parks system operated on about $23 million in 2012-13. Of that, about $6 million came from the state’s general fund, or 26 percent.
This report was first published in the Bulletin's Oct. 23 print edition.