Caldera discloses business options

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By Roger Snodgrass

In a presentation last week, the Valles Caldera Trust offered a preliminary look at a self-sufficiency plan for the 89,000-acre national preserve under its charge.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve was founded in 2000, when the federal government bought the old Baca Ranch for $101 million.

Conceived as an independent experiment in public land management, the preserve is now about halfway through the 20-year start-up program outlined by Congress in its authorizing legislation, but the governing board has yet to demonstrate prospects for “long term sustainability” consistent with the sometimes conflicting set of purposes Congress prescribed.

The new plan considers an ambitious program of new construction and infrastructure improvements, starting with a Visitors Center and Headquarters and assorted revenue enhancing projects over the next several years that might include high-end and mid-level lodging establishments.

The cost estimates range between $53 million and $21 million, bounded by a high-low set of options that are analyzed in detail.

The main difference between them can be attributed to a $13 million luxury hunting lodge and a $14 million mid-scale lodge with a restaurant, along with more development generally in the pricier alternative.

New revenues would come on top of current income generated by hunting, fishing, grazing and a variety of public access programs. About 15,400 visitors came through the gates in 2009, compared to 250,000 annually at nearby Bandelier National Monument.

The strategy suggests an effort to encourage visitors to spend extra time, including an overnight in the area after visiting Bandelier, which is usually a day trip from nearby tourist destinations.

The financial analyses and projections are based on multiple variables and assumptions that have been carefully researched by a commercial firm which was awarded a contract “to prepare a strategic business plan” in March 2008.

Reporters were individually called into an office in Santa Fe for a long-distance computer presentation by project leaders of Entrix, a group of economists and resource managers who have performed major feasibility studies and business plans for public land agencies including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

The reporters agreed to an embargo on the information for release after Monday.

Entrix Project Manager Gretchen Greene said up front that the 232-page report “is not a business plan, but rather a financial information plan,” that analyzes possible activities and revenue generating options.

The document was due in September 2008 and delivered on Dec. 31, according to the Trust’s report to Congress for last year. A further period of review has followed.

A few days before the report was unveiled, officials of the trust said during the presentation, it was decided to table one of the revenue enhancing options that is discussed in detail in the report.  

Now off the table is a plan for “green burial,” – described as “an environmentally friendly style of providing end-of-life care.”

The report states, “Green burial uses dry ice or refrigeration to preserve the body, encloses the body in a biodegradable casket or simply a shroud and does not use a vault.”

The “green burial” business was an idea favored by former Trust Chair Tracy Hephner and had been mentioned informally in public discussions during meetings. The report noted that it was identified as an option during the public meeting process in 2007.

Trust officials said the green burial enterprise was considered because of its potentially high returns for each $4,000 burial and low risk because the up-front costs were minimal.

But it was removed from immediate consideration after objections by the Native American neighbors, with whom the Trust is obliged to consult, according to the enabling act.

During the presentation, Entrix demonstrated various tweaks in the flexible pricing structure and slightly more optimistic revenue estimates that might make up for absence of the burial service, which was, by a fraction, the single most lucrative source of annual revenue (20 percent) identified in the plan.

Among possible ways to make up the difference, Vice Chair Ed Tinsley said the Mid Level Lodge might charge $210 per day instead of $150.

An increase in the $5 entrance fee per visitor, or realizing slightly more than currently projected purchases per visitor or adding a breeding program to the cattle grazing program were among other possibilities mentioned for closing the gap.

The trust officials said that a $10 million Education and Research Center would partly pay for itself by attracting scientific grants and projects that could reduce environmental compliance costs under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Some expenses will depend heavily on whether funding comes from appropriations or must be financed by the enterprises themselves.

The plan includes a fundraising effort from donations by private individuals and universities, amounting to $525,000 a year.

Downside risks for the hotel developments, the report observes, include “a lack of infrastructure currently in place, possible political and social resistance to developments on the preserve, and federal employees who are generally not trained in hospitality management.”

There are ways to mitigate the weaknesses, as well, such as “green development strategies and hiring concessionaires for operation of the lodges.”

But leases longer than 10 years with potential partners may not be possible under the current legislative contingencies.

The Entrix report, which contains valuable marketing and economic development information, is available at www.vallescaldera.gov/about/trust/docs/VCTRevenuePlan 20090327.pdf.