WOLFEBORO — The state Division of Parks and Recreation and the Mount Washington Commission are exploring charging a $4 base entrance fee to the Sherman Adams Building in the Mount Washington State Park atop the Northeast’s highest peak. No entrance fees are now charged, including at the temporarily closed historic Tip-Top House.
Commission chairman state Sen. Jeb Bradley ran an efficient two-plus-hour Zoom subcommittee meeting on Friday, Jan. 8, that highlighted concerns of stakeholders — both commercial and non-profit — on how this new revenue would be used.
The fee under discussion would only be charged to enter the Sherman Adams Building and not for entering the 60-acre park because of the rights that are held by third parties for access to the summit, explained Parks and Recreation director Phil Bryce in his four-page memo.
“This proposal is being explored concurrently with the renegotiation of an existing lease between the state and the Mount Washington Observatory,” Bryce pointed out. “The current agreement does not allow the state to charge fees, and this would have to be amended.”
A fee would provide additional financial resources to support the operation and maintenance of the state park and help pay for costly capital infrastructure projects, including water and sewage treatment facilities, he explained.
Not only would the state park’s financial position improve, but some of the monies generated could also be used to update displays and enhance “visitor experience” at the Obs’ museum, Bryce noted. The museum, located on the Sherman Adams Building’s ground floor, could not be opened in 2020 because it does not have a ventilation system, making it unsafe during a pandemic.
Day use fees to enter the Sherman Adams Building would be collected when time-specific reservations are made through the N.H. State Parks system, the director said.
There are two sets of limitations that now govern Sherman Adams Buiding occupancy: a short-term cap of 75 people to allow 6-foot “social distancing” during the current pandemic; and a long-term cap of 300 people that was determined by the state fire marshal to allow for safe, speedy emergency egress.
If an entrance fee is charged, then basic needs — fresh potable water, adequate bathrooms and possibly a wind break or bad-weather shelter — would have to be made available to those visiting the summit who have not paid to enter the Sherman Adams Building, either because no space is available or they did want to pay it.
No estimate has been made for how much providing these ancillary services would cost. This past summer, the Cog and Auto Road paid to provide portable toilets.
Subcommittee members suggested that the fire marshal be asked if there were any easy-to-make changes, such as removing tables and chairs, that would allow more than 300 visitors to be safely accommodated.
Bryce said he would ask, but also reminded everyone that the state’s revenues that defray its personnel and other overhead costs depend on both on-site retail and cafeteria sales.
A summary of 10 years of revenue and expenses indicates that the park’s net loss totaled $130,000. Over that same period, however, some $1,028,000 in capital budget expenditures were made. The park’s operating expenses will drop by over $200,000 because the state has finished paying off the bond it used to buy the Dartmouth Tract.
“But the pending sewage treatment and water system upgrades are expected to total between $3.5 and $4.5 million,” Bryce said.
The base day entrance fee for state parks stands at $4 (not including reservation fee), which could generate over $800,000 a year on the summit.
Any request for instituting a new fee would have to be submitted to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee for approval at the same time as an updated fee package for all state parks — last updated in 2012 — is submitted.
Bradley emphasized that all the summit stakeholders represented in the 12-member MWC would almost certainly have to indicate “universal support” for a Sherman Adams Building entrance fee in order to receive its favorable vote.
Bryce pointed out that the state’s other “flagship” parks, including those in Franconia Notch, Mount Monadnock and Hampton Beach generate funds that support the rest of the state’s park system.
“All other parks in the park system support the Parks Fund, which, in turn, pays for administration costs of over $2 million a year,” the director pointed out. “Mount Washington State Park does not.”
“Charging all entrants to the building instead of just those visiting the Observatory's museum will provide a more stable source of revenue to the Observatory to operate its museum as part of the overall park’s experience,” Bryce said. Interim Observatory director Donna Dunn noted that museum revenue helps to financially support the weather professionals who work at the summit year-round.
Subcommittee members asked a number of questions that they believe must be answered before they could recommend charging a Sherman Adams Building entrance fee.
Questions covered a range of topics.
Is the expanded sewage treatment plant “right-sized” for a Sherman Adams Building that can only accommodate 300 people at once? How would visitors be encouraged to leave the building so that adequate turnover can be maintained?
Would the two profit-making entities — the Cog and Auto Road — be expected to subsidize the year-round operation of the Observatory’s weather station and staff or just its museum?
Has consideration been given to hiring a Disney theme park consultant to recommend crowd flow and control techniques on the summit? Should the lease arrangements for the Auto Road’s parking lots be reviewed again.
Are state and federal public safety agencies paying their fair share to lease space for communications equipment on the summit? Does the parks budget really subsidize these sister agencies?
The next remote meeting of the full Mount Washington Commission is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 29.