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Covid impacted Austin parks concessions

Monday, January 11, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Like many other enterprises, concessions operating in Zilker Park and along Lady Bird Lake suffered various financial impacts last year due to Covid-19, according to a report from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Gross sales generated by Town Lake Park concessions fell about $1.7 million in Fiscal Year 2020, to about $6.7 million compared to about $8.4 million in FY 2019 and $8.8 million in FY 2018, the report says. As a result of those decreased revenues, the park concessions paid the city about $266,000 less than the previous year.

There are six water-based recreation services along the lake and in Zilker Park. These include the Texas Rowing Center, Zilker Park Boat Rentals, Lone Star Riverboat, Austin Rowing Club, Rowing Dock, and a stand-up paddleboard company called EpicSUP.

The report includes a local Covid-19 timeline and its impact on PARD concessions, beginning with Gov. Greg Abbott’s state disaster declaration on March 13. That declaration meant concessions had to modify their operations to implement social distancing and use of hand sanitizer. Not long after that, on March 24, Austin and Travis County issued a stay-at-home order and all Lady Bird Lake concessions closed.

Boating concessions reopened with modified operations in early May. On May 8, Lone Star Riverboat reopened at 25 percent capacity. On May 24, the riverboat began to operate at 50 percent capacity. However, Austin and Travis County started seeing higher rates of illness and hospitalization, moving to Stage 4 on June 15. On June 28, the report notes that there was a pause in the opening. Concessions were closed for the July 4 weekend in order to reduce community spread of the virus.

Park facilities, including boat concessions, were allowed to reopen with modified operations still in place. The report says that the concessions around Lady Bird Lake were closed for 82 days on average in FY 2020. However, lower revenues during the summer months were partially offset by slightly higher sales in the fall and winter. In addition, sales were much higher in May and June than in the previous year, which may be attributed to higher demand for outdoor sports after the stay-at-home order was lifted.

“Golf was determined early on to be a safe activity, due to the social distancing built into the game, and as a result Butler Pitch and Putt was closed for only 66 days due to the pandemic. However the site has been temporarily closed for renovations since August 2020,” according to the report. Renovations are expected to be completed this month.

Austin and Travis County moved back to Stage 3 on Aug. 25, with no changes to PARD operations. FY 2020 ended on Sept. 30. Since then, Austin and Travis County have moved to Stage 4 and on Dec. 23 to Stage 5, the highest risk category.

The report details services each concession provides and notes how well each one did in terms of sales. The Texas Rowing Center, which rents canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, fared best among the concessions along Lady Bird Lake, reporting $2.5 million in sales for FY 2020. The city received $186,000 in payments and renewed its contract with the rowing center in late 2020, with a new 10-year contract beginning Nov. 1.

Rowing Dock and the Austin Rowing Club generate about $1.4 million per year each. Rowing Dock paid the city about $143,000 in the last fiscal year and Austin Rowing Club paid about $111,000.

Visitors to Zilker Park have watched as the old Zilker Café, which once served millions of visitors to Barton Springs, has undergone renovations. The café, which has been closed since 2016, was built in 1959 and is a contributing structure to the Zilker National Register Historic District.

PARD spokesman John Nixon said via email, “With funding from the Historic Preservation Fund and the 2012 GO Bond, PARD has restored the building’s original midcentury modern character and adapted it to accommodate current mechanical systems and accessibility standards. A new sidewalk was built to provide ADA-compliant access from the train depot to the café to the bathhouse. Springfed LLC, the vendor selected to operate the café, continues preparations to open for business. The Zilker Café will once again serve as a source of sustenance for visitors to the pool and park,” perhaps as early as this month.

The report notes, “In May 2019, a storm caused severe erosion beneath the Zilker Zephyr track, which required immediate suspension of operations to protect public health and safety.” PARD and the train operator could not reach agreement on a new professional services contract, so the city terminated the contract. PARD then asked the Austin Parks Foundation to find a new train vendor. The department expects a new train to begin operations by this summer.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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