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Islanders weigh in on future of Fort Ward, Fay Bainbridge

As Washington State Parks officials floated a proposal for transferring Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward parks into local hands Friday, islanders expressed consternation that the two popular island destinations would be targeted for budget cuts.

"I don't see why we should be taking such a greater hit than any other county in the state," islander Ben Bronson said. "We're really getting nailed on this one."

Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward are among 13 properties in the parks system tabbed to be transferred to local governments, as part of a $10 million cost cutting package for the upcoming biennium.

State Parks has been in initial talks with the Bainbridge Metropolitan Park and Recreation District about a possible transfer, and brought the idea before a group of citizens at an Island Center meeting Friday.

A final decision won't be made until the state budget is formalized in April or May, but a transfer could be made as early as July.

State Parks Planner Peter Herzog tried to allay concern that the parks would be closed down entirely.

"What we're not talking about tonight is closing the parks for good and selling them off to the highest bidder," Herzog said. "What we are talking about is transferring them to a local government."

Bainbridge Park District board members said they would like to take over management of the parks if it keeps them from closing.

"Our goal, pure and simple, is to keep these open as parks for the people of Bainbridge as well as the enjoyment of anyone who wants to come use them," park board member Kirk Robinson said.

It's not yet clear what budget impact the transfer would have for the park district.

Together, Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward cost the state more than $500,000 annually to operate. Staffing is by far the largest expense, with two long-time rangers tending the properties.

The park district could operate the properties at a much lower cost by working them into its regular maintenance program and providing fewer services.

The district will have extra operations money to spend this year after passing a levy lid-lift in 2008. Three-quarters of that lid-lift money is dedicated to acquisition and development of new park land, leaving roughly $300,000 of the new revenue for operations.

Park Services Director Arlan Elms said the district is still working out the exact costs and equipment needs of the parks, and will have a plan ready this spring in case the transfers are approved.

Fay Bainbridge would be the first park district property to offer camping. Elms said the district already has a reservation system in place for some of its programs that could be made to accommodate camping and would work with State Parks to make the transition.

"I'm sure it's something we can do well once we get rolling with it," Elms said.

Some citizens at the Friday meeting worried that the parks would not have the same draw for visitors that they do as State Parks.

But many said the paramount task was to keep the parks open for use.

Melissa Shaw, who spent her childhood on Bainbridge, recalls long summer days camping and swimming at Fay Bainbridge. Though she has lived elsewhere, the parks were one reason why Shaw returned to Bainbridge.

"We grew up down there," she said. "To lose that park, it would be a big part of what I love about living on the island."

Herzog said the State Parks and Recreation Commission will reevaluate the park transfers as it continues budget work. But he warned the agency may have to cut deeper still if the state's projected deficit continues to widen.

"Pick your number for the lotto," Herzog said. "The number is going to be much larger for what State Parks take out of their budget."

The commission will hold public meetings March 5 and April 23 at its headquarters in Olympia. Public comments can be emailed in advance to pao@parks.wa.gov.

Read a State Parks fact sheet on the proposed cuts and closures.

Look for a full story on the future of Bainbridge state parks in the Review's Friday edition.

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