While state park users said in a survey they wanted low-cost improvements like clean bathrooms and hiking trails, Oklahoma tourism officials instead invested millions into a private restaurant venture and other costly improvements, a report from a state oversight committee found.
The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency presented its report on the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department on Thursday to a panel of legislators. The report raised questions on millions of dollars the Tourism Department spent on a contract with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom, a private company that has opened six restaurants at state parks over the past two years, as first reported by The Frontier.
The contract has cost the state nearly $16.7 million in management fees, construction costs and reimbursements for Foggy Bottom’s losses to run the restaurants, the report found. The Tourism Department told The Frontier they spent only $13.3 million on the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom restaurants in early March. Despite the discrepancy, both LOFT and the Tourism Department said they stand by their numbers.
Tourism Executive Director Jerry Winchester told the committee he ultimately made the decision to enter into the contract with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom.
Winchester ducked into a restroom at the Capitol when a Frontier reporter asked him questions after the meeting.
Winchester said he doesn’t know whether or not the department verified expenses before they paid invoices from third-party vendors that Swadley’s had contracted and said the Tourism Department is now auditing those costs.
“We have been working to ensure that we’ve been checking on furniture, fixtures, equipment, and checking with the providers to make sure what the department was charged for is appropriate,” deputy director of tourism Benjamin Davis said.
Swadley’s was the sole bidder for the contract to operate restaurants at state parks in early 2020.
LOFT Committee member Rep. Ryan Martinez R-Edmond, said he was surprised more companies weren’t interested in bidding for the contract. Martinez said he believes the contract incentivizes Swadley’s to not be profitable since they are guaranteed to not lose money otherwise. Under the contract with Swadley’s the state takes the first $100,000 in profits from the Foggy Bottom restaurants.
Martinez, who said he has a history in the restaurant industry, questioned the Tourism Department’s decision to give Foggy Bottom owner Brent Swadley sole discretion to enter into third-party contracts for the restaurants with little to no oversight.
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