Ron Olson's Challenge
To pay the bills, Olson depends on camping fees (47 percent of revenue in 2007-08), entrance fees (23 percent), the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (18 percent), and miscellaneous fees (12 percent), which include concessions, investment earnings, and shelter rentals, amongst others. With park dollars stretched so thin, Olson admits it's difficult to decide what gets funding and what doesn't.
"One of the things I try to do is first deal with the basics," he says, "meaning the park customers want clean bathrooms, litter-free parks, and they want the toilets to work and the showers to work, things like that. So when they pay their money for camping or their entrance fee, they feel they get value for their dollar."
Faced with a budget crisis, many organizations overreact, cutting capital spending even when it could save them money. To avoid that, Olson says, "each year we set aside money to invest in productive ideas" from parks employees. If employees can produce a business plan showing a 20 percent return on an investment, they can get it funded. For example, says Olson, "if you have an energy conservation idea, we will invest in that idea provided that, basically, you have a five-year payback on that investment.