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Navigating the Complexities of National Park Concessions: A Deep Dive into Valuation Issues and Controversies

Introduction: The Landscape of National Park Concessions

When you visit a national park in the United States and enjoy a meal at a lodge or buy a souvenir from a retail shop, you are engaging with services provided by private concessioners under contracts with the National Park Service (NPS). For over a century, these concessions have been the backbone of visitor services at national parks, fostering a unique blend of public and private enterprise. However, this relationship has not been without its complexities and controversies, particularly concerning the valuation of concessioner investments and their rights under various contracts.

The Evolution of Concessioner Contracts and Compensation

The NPS manages approximately 480 concession contracts across its parks, generating significant revenues from services like lodging, retail, and recreational activities. In 2018 alone, these contracts generated $1.54 billion, reflecting a steady increase from previous years. Yet, the system for compensating concessioners when their contracts expire or are terminated has undergone significant changes over the years, leading to a range of valuation issues and disputes.

The Shift from “Sound Value” to “Leasehold Surrender Interest”

Historically, concessioners were compensated based on the “sound value” of their improvements, which accounted for the cost of reconstruction minus depreciation, not exceeding fair market value. This concept was in place until the late 1990s, when new legislation introduced the concept of “leasehold surrender interest” (LSI). Under the LSI model, concessioners are compensated for their improvements based on the initial construction cost adjusted by changes in the Consumer Price Index and depreciation. This shift aimed to simplify the valuation process, but it also introduced new challenges and controversies.

Historical Context: The Role of Concessions in National Parks

The private sector’s involvement in national parks dates back to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in the 1870s, driven by the Northern Pacific Railroad's interest in creating a tourist destination akin to Niagara Falls. Over the decades, railroads and other private entities built and operated lodges, hotels, and other visitor facilities, laying the foundation for the extensive concession system we see today.

Challenges and Conflicts in Valuation

Despite the move to the LSI model, determining the value of concessioner improvements remains contentious. Key issues include:

Reconstruction Cost vs. Replacement Cost: There is often debate over whether the term “reconstruction cost” should align with “reproduction cost” or “replacement cost.” This distinction can significantly affect the valuation outcome.

Measuring Depreciation: The methods for assessing depreciation vary, leading to inconsistencies in the valuation of improvements. The lack of clarity on whether functional and economic obsolescence should be considered adds to the complexity.

Fair Market Value Considerations: Unlike typical real estate transactions, concessioner improvements in national parks do not operate in an open market. This makes it difficult to apply standard fair market value approaches, further complicating valuation efforts.

Notable Cases and Their Implications

The valuation issues came to a head in several high-profile cases, including the arbitration involving the Grand Canyon South Rim concession. Here, significant differences in valuation approaches between the NPS and concessioners led to extended legal battles and subsequent changes in concession policies. Similar disputes have arisen in other parks, highlighting the ongoing challenges in applying consistent valuation methodologies.

The Role of Intangible Assets: Trademarks and Beyond

In recent years, the valuation of intangible assets, such as trademarks, has become a new battleground. The case of Yosemite National Park is a prime example, where Delaware North Corporation sought compensation for trademarks associated with iconic facilities like the Ahwahnee Hotel. The ensuing legal disputes and settlements underscore the complexity of valuing non-physical assets within the national park concession framework.

Future Directions: Toward a Fair and Transparent Valuation System

As the NPS continues to refine its policies, the goal remains to balance the interests of concessioners with the need to provide high-quality services to park visitors. This includes addressing ongoing concerns about franchise fees, capital investments, and the overall profitability of concession operations. The recent proposals to expand the definition of “major rehabilitation” and other regulatory changes reflect a commitment to improving the fairness and transparency of the concession system.

Conclusion: The Continuing Role of Appraisers in National Park Concessions

Real estate appraisers play a crucial role in navigating the complexities of national park concessions. Their expertise is essential in resolving valuation disputes and ensuring that concession agreements reflect a fair balance between public and private interests. As new challenges arise, the appraisal profession will continue to be a key player in maintaining the integrity and sustainability of the national park concession system.


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