MOUNT WASHINGTON — 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.
Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), chairman of the commission, ran a Zoom subcommittee meeting last Friday that highlighted concerns of stakeholders — both commercial and non-profit — about how the 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, said Parks and Recreation Director Phil Bryce in a 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 said. “The current agreement does not allow the state to charge fees."
A fee would support the operation and maintenance of the state park as well as to help pay for such capital infrastructure projects as water and sewage treatment facilities, he said.
In addition, some of the monies generated could be used to update displays and enhance visitor experience at the Obs’ museum, Bryce said. The museum, located on the Sherman Adams Building’s ground floor, remained closed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Day use fees to enter the building would be collected when time-specific reservations are made through the State Parks system, the director said.
Two sets of limitations currently govern occupancy of the building: 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 determined by the state fire marshal.
Even if an entrance fee is charged, basic needs — potable water, adequate bathrooms and possibly a wind break or bad-weather shelter — still would have to be made available to those visiting the summit who have not paid to enter the Sherman Adams Building.
No estimate has been made for how much providing these ancillary services would cost. This past summer, the Cog Railway and Mt. Washington Auto Road paid to provide portable toilets.
Subcommittee members suggested asking the state fire marshal about easy-to-make changes, such as removing tables and chairs, that would allow more visitors to be safely accommodated.
Bryce said he would ask, but 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 at 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 the summit stakeholders represented in the 12-member commission would have to indicate “universal support” for the entrance fee at Sherman Adams in order to receive a favorable vote from the fiscal committee.
Bryce pointed out that the state’s other “flagship” parks, including Franconia Notch, Mount Monadnock and Hampton Beach, generate funds that support the entire state 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,” he noted. “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 said museum revenue helps 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.
-- Is the expanded sewage treatment plant the right size 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 at 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 Zoom meeting of the Mount Washington Commission is scheduled for Jan. 29.