Pershing Park, the little patch of green across Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Willard Hotel, is a ghostly place. An ice rink used to operate there in the winter, but the pipes have been broken for years, leaving it drained and barren. A domed glass kiosk used to dispense hot dogs and sodas, but it’s now vacant. The park is only steps away from the White House, and a steady stream of tourists moves through it each day, making its way to and from the National Mall.
In most other cities, the park’s owner might have fixed and maintained facilities so close to its biggest tourist attractions. In D.C., the owner is the federal government, and a private company has first dibs on all commercial activity within Pershing Park, as well as an ill-defined responsibility to pay for its capital upgrades. But the feds and its contractor, a Virginia-based concern called Guest Services Incorporated, haven’t been able to agree on how to split the costs, so the facilities in this once-elegant park now sit dormant.
Welcome to the dysfunctional world of National Park Service contracting. Ever since signing a 25-year omnibus contract in 1986, GSI has had the right of first refusal for selling nearly all goods and services in almost every federally owned park and marina in the area.
Not unlike Tourmobile, the company that until last year was able to prevent the extension of D.C.’s popular Circulator bus service to the National Mall, GSI’s deal has kept community groups from selling food in their neighborhood parks and kiboshed the kind of creative public-land uses that have flourished in cities without such rigid agreements.
But now, finally, the National Park Service is working on a new solicitation it hopes to issue by the fall, and the new contract could look quite different: NPS might break it into several parts, for example, and tone down the new deals’ exclusivity.
“We’re looking at how we can promote greater vibrancy in our parks,” says National Mall superintendent Bob Vogel, who started last year, and is emblematic of a sort of glasnost that’s taken hold at the National Park Service as of late. Most of his fellow superintendents, Vogel says—including the ones who oversee Rock Creek Park, the Fort Circle Parks, and the C&O Canal—would be glad not to deal with one giant contract. “It’s making sure our bureaucracy isn’t getting in the way.”
Guest Services has always been tight with the federal government. In fact, when it was founded in 1917, it was the government: It was originally called the Joint Welfare Service, which the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds of the National Capital, established to feed personnel swarming the Mall as World Ward I raged in Europe. It became a quasi-public entity in 1927, with 50 cafeterias and dozens of concession stands, barbershops, and parking lots. In 1975, the feds broke up its monopoly, allowing other companies to bid on the food service contracts. Guest Services lost a lot of Uncle Sam’s cafeteria business, but held on to the parks.
These days, new Park Service contracts are usually shorter-term and more flexible. Gradually, the agency has renegotiated concessions, but the National Capital Region is at the bottom of the pile; GSI’s contract here has already been extended twice. It’s been a very convenient marriage. When the Park Service acquires recreational properties, like Fletcher’s Boathouse on the C&O Canal, it often turns to GSI to run them without opening them up to bids. Even when the Park Service issues solicitations for new operators, like it did in 2009 with James Creek Marina on Buzzard Point, GSI often still comes out on top.
One advantage of a big operator handling lots of facilities: It can take a loss on some of them while making bank on others. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that GSI has complained about spending more on the Rock Creek Horse Center than it brings in, for example. While the company declined to disclose how much it makes through different facilities, it’s a lot easier to profit off high-volume, low-maintenance operations like its refreshment stands on the Mall—especially when nobody’s allowed to open up next door. (The Park Service has to approve its vendors’ prices.) “The contract wouldn’t be worth very much if McDonald’s could open up next to our kiosk,” says Doug Verner, GSI’s general counsel.
That model doesn’t work for everyone, though. GSI took over the food services at Glen Echo Park in the early 2000s, but the independent entity that Montgomery County set up to run the former amusement park wasn’t happy with its vendor’s run-of-the-mill offerings. After a decade of work that required the involvement of county councilmembers and the county executive, Glen Echo was finally able to wrench free of the contract, and brought in a vendor that serves a full menu of fresh sandwiches and salads. “We have ongoing needs that are different from a whole bunch of tourists showing up and needing hot dogs,” says Glen Echo Park’s executive director, Katey Boerner.
For that reason, GSI hasn’t even tried to install food service in the neglected-feeling Franklin Square at 13th and K streets NW, despite the Downtown Business Improvement District’s pleas. And the Park Service isn’t inviting anybody else to do it, either.
Meanwhile, GSI is wary of infringment on its territory. While it decided to forfeit its right of first refusal in offering a Bikeshare-type program on the Mall, it warned the Park Service not to get any other big ideas. Last August, Verner emailed Park Service concession specialist Steve LeBel an article about a company that offers tours on electric bikes. “This shows the problem when the camel gets its nose inside the tent,” Verner wrote.
More competition could certainly help the situation, which has bred stodginess and inaction. But the more fundamental problem is the Park Service’s own rules, which are largely the same in Yellowstone and here, limiting any commercial use.
For example: Cultural Tourism D.C. is putting on an arts event this fall, and several artists thought it would be neat to make use of the District’s unique circles and squares. But while you might get a permit for an art installation, any kind of exhibit in which the art might be sold is a no-no.
Verner likens the question of how much commercialization should be allowed in D.C. parks to the debate over what should be allowed in our treasured natural landscapes—like snowmobiles in Yosemite. But selling a sandwich, or hosting a flea market, isn’t like shattering the silence of a pristine mountainside. Lots of other cities, from San Francisco to New York, have figured this out.
“I don’t see why the Park Service should think any differently about urban parks as any other park systems,” says Peter Harnik, who studies such things at the Trust for Public Land. “The Park Service likes to keep everything in this tightly restricted world of theirs.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery