Imperceptible to most visitors but eyed warily by environmentalists, a historic change is taking place this week in Yosemite National Park. After nearly a century of operations, the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. formally relinquished its contract to house and feed park visitors.
With the Curry Co.'s departure, the largest and most lucrative concession business in the national park system passes to Delaware North Cos., which has specialized in servicing sporting events but has no experience in a national park.
The 15-year contract is valued at about $1.5 billion and involves running the park's historic Ahwahnee Hotel and other lodges, gift shops, snack bars and campgrounds.
But Delaware North officials say that park visitors will have to look hard to notices any changes, at least in the beginning.
"I really don't see Yosemite patrons seeing anything different initially. We're moving in as quietly and with as little turmoil as possible," said Gary Fraker, president of Concessions Services Corp., the Delaware North subsidiary created to run Yosemite concessions.
With one notable exception, there has been no employee turnover among the 2,000 people working for the Curry Co., Fraker said. Ed Hardy, Curry's president and an influential presence in the park for 19 years, will go to work for Delaware North but not at Yosemite, said Fraker, who is replacing Hardy.
Before coming to Yosemite, Fraker, 52, was vice president in charge of purchasing and facilities planning for Delaware North's food service division.
During the next several months, Delaware North plans to introduce more health-conscious menus as well as the firm's own line of snack products.
The 78-year-old Delaware North owns the Boston Garden arena, 11 dog and horse racetracks and a jai alai fronton, and controls food and beverage concessions at a score of other racetracks, half a dozen major league baseball parks, 40 airports and the Miami Zoo.
The Curry Co. lost the opportunity to extend its 94-year association with the park when former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. declared it ineligible for contract renewal after the firm's parent company, MCA, was sold to Matsushita of Japan. Lujan insisted that the contract should be held by an American company.
The brainchild of schoolteachers David and Jennie Curry, the Curry Co. started out doing business from a few tents in 1899 and eventually grew into an $80-million-a-year enterprise.
With success came bitter controversy as environmentalists increasingly blamed the proliferation of traffic and spread of commercial development in Yosemite on the Curry Co's. entrepreneurial talents. They also faulted the company for returning 0.75% of its profits to the park.
In its bid to replace the Curry Co., Delaware North pledged to pay the National Park Service 20.2% of its annual gross receipts, generating $10 million more a year than has been paid under the Curry Cos. contract, according to park officials.
Delaware North also agreed to buy Curry Co. assets--buildings and equipment--and then turn them over to the federal government. The price tag has been estimated at just over $60 million.
The weight of that obligation has led some observers to speculate that many desired capital improvements, including the removal of some buildings from the park and improvements to employees' housing, won't occur for several years, until the Curry Co. assets have been transferred to government ownership.
"I'm predicting you'll see very, very gradual change because the money (is) being used to buy the assets," Hardy said. "I'm talking about things that Delaware North told us they were interested in improving, such as employee housing, the speed of fast food and the quality of food. The reality, I believe, is there will be little or no change because the government made the first priority the purchase of the assets."
The new concessionaire was the only firm bidding for the contract that did not put a limit on the amount of money it would spend to clean up contamination from leaking underground storage tanks.
Environmentalists maintain that the true test of Delaware North's stewardship will be its willingness to reduce the amount of building in the park, to limit visitors on the busiest days of the year and to eliminate auto traffic.
"We will be watching them very closely to see if they put the park first and profits second," said Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society.