Guest Services Inc., the Virginia-based company that has secured concessionaire contracts with hundreds of state parks nationwide — most recently, and to the chagrin of many, at DeLeon Springs State Park — is ruffling feathers once again in West Volusia.
In mid-July, a group of Orange City small-business owners were taken aback by news that Guest Services Inc. would close the boat ramp at French Landing to commercial kayak vendors as of Aug. 1.
French Landing, at the end of French Avenue just past the entrance to Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, is on state-park land.
“The outfitters were never really informed this was going to happen,” Astrid Jackson, owner of Venture Outdoors, told The Beacon.
At least a half-dozen local companies ran ecotours and kayak rentals using the boat launch, including Jackson. More than one company could fold.
“This is our livelihood,” Richard Gallagher, of Epic Paddle Adventures, said.
Around Aug. 1, a small sign appeared under the prominent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission “public boat ramp” sign: “Guest Services Inc. is the only authorized kayak vendor for Blue Spring State Park. Other vendors operating within the park are in violation of rule 62D-2.014.”
Florida Administrative Code states, in part, that “No person other than a Division employee or a concessionaire of the Division shall rent or hire, for profit or charge, any kind of watercraft in any park waters … . Permits shall be issued only when no concession agreement exists or when the concessionaire does not wish to provide the services requested.”
“Recent, unauthorized commercial activities in the area of Blue Spring State Park known as French Landing have required us to place a heightened emphasis on remaining in compliance with Florida Adminsitrative [sic] Code,” the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the state park system, said in response to one business owner’s query. “We understand that this may be inconsistent with your previous experience and apologize for that inconvenience.”
Guest Services Inc. could subcontract out some services, to meet the needs of the park, according to the DEP.
But according to multiple business owners, the company has expressed no interest in working with them.
Guest Services did not respond to multiple requests by The Beacon for comment. The company’s website, bluespringadventures.com, offers guided segway tours, kayak rentals and tours, and the popular St. Johns River Nature Cruise out of Blue Spring State Park.
“This big corporation from out of state wants to have the monopoly,” Jackson said, a sentiment echoed by several other business owners.
“Basically, they’re trying to shut down all outfitters,” Gallagher said. “They want exclusivity — coming in and doing all of it without subcontracting, I mean, that’s Amazon. That’s coming in and kicking everyone out.”
The outfitters fear that, in addition to putting them out of business, Guest Services will significantly reduce public access to the Blue Spring area of the St. Johns River. Jackson and others explained that their small operations have helped meet the need, since people often cannot get into the park itself because it is full.
“That business is only going to get so much business, because the park fills up,” Mark Angel, who owns Central Florida Adventure Kayak Tours and Rentals, said. Angel owns and runs the small outfitter near the park that mostly rents kayaks.
Blue Spring State Park has roughly 190 parking spaces available.
“They do not have the capacity … it’s a disservice to the customers, to the tourists who book months in advance,” Jackson said.
Gallagher estimated roughly $1 million in gross revenue will be lost with local kayak guides and vendors shut down, based on the money his company stands to lose, which is several hundred thousand dollars.
“We brought people in who would never have come here,” Gallagher said, pointing out that tourists also inject money into the local economy by going out to eat, or purchasing items at the park gift shop.
More than that, business owners said, their private operations helped keep the boat ramp clean, educated legions of visitors, and helped foster a connection with the natural world.
Gallagher’s company’s employees, he said, are “guardian guides” with Save the Manatee Club, the local nonprofit that works closely with the park to protect the local population of manatees that gather at the spring every winter.
And Jackson is a certified kayak instructor and wilderness first responder, who left a career in artificial intelligence and robotics in 2019 to run ecotours full time.
“I so enjoy sharing the things I love — sharing with a small group environmentalism and education,” Jackson said. “It’s a down sort of feeling … to see the joy on people’s faces when I show them, and to think I won’t see that again.”
“This ramp is and the park is the only water access to one of the largest manatee migrations in the state,” Greg Braswell, of Kayaking Florida, said.
The closest public ramp for commercial outfitters to access is Lake Beresford, which is about an 8-mile paddle to Blue Spring, a tall proposition for many people.
“If they cannot fill the demand, they’ll reduce the access the public has to the river,” Jackson said, referring to Guest Services.
Frustrated business owners point to the 1987 amended land deed regarding the French Landing ramp. Volusia County deeded the property to the state for $1, with the condition that the boat ramp remain open 24 hours a day unless significant improvements were made to French Avenue, which is a dirt road.
“This is just plain wrong … They are closing taxpayers-funded boat ramps and water access to state, county and city parks to commercial boating. This means kayaking, sightseeing and commercial fishing,” Braswell said.
“They’re going to shut me down,” Mark Angel said. “If I can’t do this, I’m going to sell my equipment and probably buy a lawn mower and push a lawn mower around the neighborhood trying to make money. I don’t know what else I can do.”
“If this was a revenue thing — we’ll pay,” Gallagher said. “Why is this happening? I think they are catering to a monstrous corporation.”
“I am not ready to give up my business,” Jackson said.