The ex-Army base in Port Townsend was not sold or privatized, but part of the park has been leased to a corporation. It's a potential model for communities looking for ways to rescue parks that have suffered from budget cuts.

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Visit Fort Worden State Park here and you can do most of what you’d expect from a state park — hike in the woods, walk the beach or just park your RV or tent at a campsite overlooking the Olympics.

But here you can also check into accommodations ranging from a budget dormitory to a three-bedroom apartment with a view. You can study yoga or computer science or learn to play bluegrass fiddle. And soon you’ll be able to step into a pub for a local craft brew, or sit down to a dinner prepared by a chef trained at a culinary-arts school a few steps away.

Yoga and beer and gourmet dining in a state park? This is the vision concocted by the local public development authority (PDA) that now manages the heart of this park. Fort Worden has become the first park in the state, and one of the nation’s first, to be managed by a corporate entity.

For Port Townsend, it is a bold and risky effort to maintain a park that is an essential driver to its small-town economy. But the enterprise is also being closely watched from Seattle and beyond, where communities are groping for ways to rescue parks that have suffered from repeated budget cuts. Eastsiders in particular are exploring alternatives for the former seminary at St. Edwards State Park.

A strategic setting

Fort Worden, a former Army base at the entrance to Puget Sound, has not been sold or privatized. But about one-quarter of the park — 90 acres incorporating more than 70 buildings surrounding the original parade grounds — has been leased to a public corporation.

The PDA is a public agency but can operate like a private business much like the Pike Place Market board and other Seattle agencies. Using a mix of public and private funds, it manages the park much like a destination resort or a college campus.

The public authority is “a vehicle for freeing up or enabling assets to become self-supporting while retaining them in the public sector,” explains Gerry Johnson, a Seattle attorney who specializes in helping set them up.

For Port Townsend that meant finding a way to preserve a cluster of military buildings, many of them a century old, that have become an integral part of the town’s culture and economy.

Fort Worden was built at the end of the 19th century to protect Puget Sound from naval invasion — a strategy that was promptly rendered obsolete by the invention of airplanes. Still, it was manned by up to 10,000 during World War II before being handed over to the state.

State Parks took ownership in 1973 and began studying what to do with its 434 acres, extensive shoreline and more than 100 buildings ranging from cottages and houses to barracks and auditoriums.

Over time, however, State Parks was unable to manage all those buildings, says Thatcher Bailey, director of the Seattle Parks Foundation. “It was outside their competence zone.”

Bailey previously directed Centrum, the Port Townsend arts organization that stages a wide range of music and arts festivals at the park, luring visitors to the fort’s former military housing, especially the popular Victorian houses on Officers Row.

The problem came to a head as tax dollars for state parks plummeted by nearly 80 percent during the recession. Discover Passes and other fees have failed to fill the gap.

Thousands of visitors

For Port Townsend, Fort Worden is more than a park. Nonprofit tenants such as Centrum, the Marine Science Center and Peninsula College employ dozens of residents and draw thousands of visitors into the local economy.

After months of debate, the city of Port Townsend created the PDA, whose mission is to transform the park into a “lifelong learning center,” offering classes in everything from country music and culinary arts to computer science. The PDA assumed management last year.

Since then, the PDA has taken over the food service and housekeeping for the park’s nearly 400 housing units. It built a front desk into the central Commons building and mans the desk 18 hours a day.

The key, says PDA director Dave Robison, is to “get heads in beds” year-round, visitors who are tempted to sleep and eat in the park during their stays.

Robison acknowledges that he and his staff face a daunting task. Estimated costs for upgrading the campus buildings exceed $80 million.

However, the authority has already lured $5 million in grants from family foundations interested in making the idea work. Peninsula College of Port Angeles has begun a $6 million remodel of one building to be used as a satellite campus.

They have lured a Hollywood film crew that will bring some $400,000 onto the campus later this year. And plans are in the works for a dinner theater, culinary-arts school and a pub.

Meanwhile, they are renegotiating leases with Centrum and other nonprofit tenants.

Gerry Johnson, who has advised Port Townsend through the transition, warns that most state parks do not lend themselves to such enterprising strategies. To work, he says, a park needs a rare mix of entertainment venues or housing capable of paying for themselves. They need support from a local community and efficient management.

And Fort Worden may be the only park in the state that meets each of those requirements.