It's not unusual that questions might arise regarding the Interior Department's decision to award the contract for operating concessions at Yosemite National Park to Delaware North Cos. Inc., a company with no experience in park operations.
The concerns arise not only because Yosemite is the crown jewel of the national park system. There are other factors. The losing bids included one by a company that operates concessions in other national parks and one by a new company put together by environmental groups. Federal approval of one of these "safe" bids would not have set off the alarm bells ringing over the contract to Delaware North, whose chief experience is operating sports stadiums and airport food concessions. Add to this the fact that one of Delaware North's predecessors as a corporate entity was Emprise Corp., which 20 years ago was fined for attempting to launder money for organized crime figures through a Las Vegas casino-hotel. Company officials say no one working for Delaware North today was involved.
But even with that background, Delaware North's proposal could not be dismissed. The company made the best offer for the rights to operate the lovely old Ahwahnee Hotel and other Yosemite lodgings, as well as all the stores and restaurants. And the new contract will set a precedent that will allow the federal government to get more money out of future national park contracts.
Delaware North is offering to pay the National Park Service 25 cents per dollar spent by visitors in the park, compared to less than a penny per dollar paid by the current concessionaire. Delaware North was also the only bidder willing to assume all the cost of cleaning up leakage from Yosemite's underground storage tanks over the 15-year contract, which could put $100 million into federal coffers.
Still, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), House Interior Committee chairman, plans to hold hearings on the contract. He should. The public deserves reassurance that the deal at Yosemite will make for a continued good park environment as well as good business sense. But a company that has made a very good proposal and has cleansed itself of past problems at least deserves a fair hearing.