2016-04-15 / Front Page

User fees are on the rise at Fort Williams

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — Although general admission to Cape Elizabeth’s historic Fort Williams Park remains free, user fees for some site amenities are set to climb by as much as 25 percent.

The good news for cash strapped groups, however, is that the new rates do not take effect until Dec. 1.

The fees on group and commercial use of park features, such as the picnic shelter and Ship Cove platform, have not changed since 2012. That also was the year the town began charging tour buses to enter the park. Those fees are set to rise $10 (20 percent) to $50 per bus next year. Tour companies that participate in pre-approved invoicing and agree to promote the gift shop at Portland Head Light get a discount on bus fees, but that rate also is slated to go up $10 (22 percent), to $45 per visit.

The seven-member Fort Williams Advisory Commission had argued for a steeper price hike of $15, to $55 per bus or trolley visit.

“We didn’t raise fees (as much) on people who are having a picnic there, but for people who are bringing other individuals into the park and generating their own revenue from that, we felt that that was a place that we could go,” commission Chairman Mark Russell told the town council at its April 11 meeting.

“I don’t mean to be trite but, when Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he said ‘that’s where the money is,’” Russell said. “Well, this is where the money is, in the park.”

However, Jeanne Gross, director of the Head Light museum and gift shop, called the price hike, “excessive.”

“Ever since the parking fee was initiated there has been constant, negative feedback from the tour operators,” she wrote in a March 28 email to Town Manager Michael McGovern. “Our department is responsible for collecting the parking fees and we have to very carefully and respectfully deal with these disgruntled tour companies.”

Gross said a $50 fee would be “more palatable” to tour operators, given that groups often are on site for less than 35 minutes, if accompanied by an assurance it will remain fixed in stone for the next five years.

That way, “they will be able to better project their expenses and profit margins for the near future,” Gross suggested.

The council instead chose a middle path, declining to promise a freeze of future fee increases, but shaving a bit off the top of the commission recommendation. Some said they hoped that would pay off down the road in goodwill from tour operators, a clear necessity given that tour groups, in Gross’ estimation, “contribute heavily” to keeping gift shop books in the black.

Councilor Sara Lennon said the $5 reduction from the commission recommendation “doesn’t seem like a big swing in revenue,” adding that an increase more in line with the average 10 percent rise in group fees might be easier for lighthouse staff to defend to tour bus drivers, with whom they interact on a daily basis.

However, not all councilors were on board with that idea. Councilor Kathy Ray, who is chairman of the council’s finance committee, reminded her peers that they set a goal earlier this year to increase revenue at the park.

“There’s also been discussion about parking fees at the fort, and I think we are all clear, although we don’t have the exact numbers, that the fort costs us more than it’s bringing in for revenue,” she said, before voting against the new rate schedule.

In 2014, Bill Brownell, chairman of the Fort William Advisory Commission at the time, said the park garnered $27,000 in bus fees in the first year they were assessed.

Those dollars were important, he said, as it was about “four or five years ago” that the town council, acting in its capacity as the board of directors for the Portland Head Light museum, notified the commission it would no longer fund capital improvement projects at the 90-acre park complex.

Instead, money to fund capital improvements now comes from fees and rents, which the town council controls.

McGovern has said in past interviews with the Sentry that the museum and gift shop at Portland Head Light grosses about $500,000 in sales per year. However, net revenue after product costs, wages and other overhead amounts to about $70,000 “in a good year,” he has said.

That money, as well as the town’s annual contribution, goes to routine maintenance, while the charitable Fort Williams Foundation raises money for special projects, such as the ongoing arboretum construction.

In the past few years, a number of changes have been instituted at the park to help fund capital improvement projects. In addition to the new bus fees, a food vendor program was instituted in 2011, netting about $12,000 per year. Site rental fees have been boosted twice, and the Beach to Beacon road race, which previously got free use of the park for its annual event, was solicited for a $25,000 annual donation. Also, leases for office space in the two buildings on Officer’s Row was opened up to commercial, as well as nonprofit enterprises, boosting rental income from $11,000 to $45,000 per year.

In all, park revenue from fees and rentals have jumped from $26,866 in 2010 to more than $166,000.

McGovern said that since the start of the current fiscal year, July 1, park fees have generated about $43,000. The increases recommended by the commission would have added between $10,000 and $15,000 during summer 2017, “depending on the tourist season,” he said. The increased approval by the council should boost the maintenance kitty by something closer to $7,000 and $10,000, McGovern predicted.

The new rate schedule includes hikes in full-day use of the picnic shelter of 6.7 percent (to $160) for Cape residents, 3.4 percent (to $310) for non-residents and nonprofit organizations, and 12.5 percent (to $450) for businesses.

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