Report: Restaurants At Oklahoma State Parks Costing Taxpayers Millions

Thursday, March 31st 2022, 9:44 pm


A legislative financial watchdog group found the state has paid more than $16.7 million since 2020 to a company hired to turn around restaurant spaces at state parks. The money was used for renovations, management fees, and operating costs. 

The report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, released Thursday, questioned spending by the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department. 

“The significant capital improvement investments in several restaurants exceed OTRD’s own asset management plan to reinvest in no more than one restaurant per year,” the report read. 

Tourism Director Jerry Winchester responded to the report at a LOFT meeting Wednesday. Before hiring Swadley’s, the state operated the restaurant space. Winchester said the service was subpar and was not profitable. 

“Those types of operations, they operate at a loss,” Winchester said. “Would it be better, if we’re going to lose money on it, that we lost it on good food and good service?” 

The original cost estimate of the Swadley’s contract was close to $4 million, but capital improvements and challenges presented by the pandemic brought expenses up. As a result, the state amended the contract twice. 

In August, the state agreed to provide Swadley’s with roughly $2.1 million for operational costs. 

Edmond Rep. Ryan Martinez was critical of the contract during the meeting. He asked if Swadley’s invoices and expenses had been audited by the OTRD. 

Ben Davis, the deputy executive director of OTRD, said the department is actively reviewing the restaurant’s spending. 

“My main concern is when there’s that big of a jump in an appropriation, I want to know where those extra dollars went and who received them,” Martinez, a Republican, said. “We’re encouraging that operator to just to lose money, I mean, truly. It’s a pretty foolish contract and not one that I’m real familiar with.” 

The OTRD requested a $19 million budget increase for the next fiscal year. Roger Thompson, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is “not ready to move forward” with that request. 

“We want to make sure before we give any more money that we’re moving in the right direction.” 

Winchester declined to comment after the meeting.