Montgomery County officials are trying to maintain control over Glen Echo Park by extending an existing agreement with the National Park Service, which owns the park.
The deadline to do so is fast approaching—the initial agreement with the park service expired last year and a one-year extension is set to expire June 7. The county’s effort has drawn the involvement of Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who secured a commitment Thursday from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to resolve the issue.
David Dise, the county’s director of general services, said Friday in an interview with Bethesda Beat that a large federal agency such as the park service doesn’t have the same expertise and on-the-ground knowledge the county has to operate the park, which is the site of a former amusement park that has been turned into arts and entertainment venue attracting more than 500,000 visitors annually. Officials fear that it would be unclear who is responsible for managing the park if the agreement expired.
“The park operates as a local or regional park,” Dise said. “The county is attuned to the programming and issues that confront patrons of the park. We’ve stepped up to do things … because we’ve been able to do so when the National Park Service has been unable to do so.”
He said attorneys for both the park service and county are expected to meet within a week to try to determine if a new agreement could be worked out.
Since 2002, the county has managed park contractors, maintenance and event programming through the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture under the existing agreement. The partnership generates most of the revenue required to operate the park through rental income—such as by renting out the Spanish Ballroom and Bumper Car Pavilion—for corporate events, parties or weddings.
The county initially took over management of the park after it fell into disrepair under the park service, according to Dise.
Dise said the county has offered to continue in the role it has long held, while the park service maintains ownership of the land. However, he said negotiations over the past four years have been troubled “with a lot of legal oversight and other issues that have come up.”
He said the park service has few contracts with local governments and that most are with private contractors—so the lack of similar agreements may be contributing to the difficulties in formalizing a new deal.
“Conceptually, we still think it’s a two-party agreement between the park service and the county,” Dise said.
He added that if an agreement can’t be reached by June 7, then the county will seek a short-term extension until a long-term agreement can be reached. He noted the negotiations have been amicable, but described them as “bogged down” in technicalities.
In an effort to try to settle the matter, the county enlisted the help of Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin as well as Rep. Jamie Raskin.
Van Hollen recently attended a meeting with county officials about the issue and he and Zinke had a public exchange during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee meeting. Van Hollen asked Zinke if he would commit to bringing a park service team to negotiate with the county next week. He explained to Zinke that allowing the agreement to expire would create a “situation of a lot of chaos and uncertainty.”
“My commitment: If I have to go personally with you, we’re going to get it done,” Zinke responded. “It’s an important park, and my understanding is the ‘negotiations’ are going well. But I am personally involved in it now.”
Van Hollen added, “This is an agreement that saves the National Park Service a lot of money.”
Dise said over the past two decades the county has funded a major restoration of the park, brought in a new food service vendor for the café, helped promote the ongoing events that take place there and even replaced an underground power cable to a building after it stopped working.
“What we’d like to do is to continue to treat it as a local county park and give it the attention that public thinks it deserves,” Dise said.