The National Park Service has selected a new contractor to provide visitor services at El Portal Market in the El Portal Administrative Site, adjacent to the western boundary of Yosemite National Park on Highway 140.
The current concessioner, Kirstie Dunbar-Kari, has operated under the existing contract since 2008. She’s grown the business from an operation that annually grossed about $600,000 to one that’s grossed more than $1 million annually since 2013, according to the Park Service.
“We’re very sad to leave the store,” Dunbar-Kari said Tuesday. “We loved working here. We wish that our proposal had been selected, and we’re not sure why it wasn’t. We’ll continue to live in El Portal and be part of our community.”
The new concessioner, National and State Park Concessions El Portal, LLC, has a 10-year contract expected to begin Nov. 1, 2016. It includes grocery, retail sales, food and beverage, and related services at the El Portal Market, about 70 miles southeast of Sonora.
Jack E. Bobo, Jr., a representative for National and State Park Concessions El Portal, LLC, said Tuesday he and his associates are excited to begin operations at El Portal Market.
“We’re aiming for a seamless transition for both current employees and park visitors,” Bobo said. “We recognize that so many current employees have dedicated themselves to the Mariposa County and Yosemite National Park communities for such a long time. With that in mind, we want to retain that talent and devotion by offering jobs to as many current employees as possible.”
Bobo said he hopes to begin to offer more sustainable and locally sourced ingredients and merchandise in food and gift services at the market. He said he also has plans to improve the market’s environmental efficiency to reduce its impact on park lands.
“We look forward to continuing the market’s established partnerships, and we hope to seek additional opportunities for us and our employees to volunteer within these communities,” Bobo said. “It’s very exciting, and a little intimidating, to be the newest partner in the El Portal community.”
The move is the latest in concession changes at several national parks. The trend includes changing the primary company managing concessions in Yosemite, which resulted in a lawsuit challenging the new company’s rights to use trademarked and historic names such as Ahwahnee Hotel and Curry Village.
Before 1998, concession law provided broad rights granting preferential right of renewal to incumbent concessioners, Park Service staff said in a statement in August. Since 1998, with passage of an act reforming concessions management, issuance of most concession contracts generally become subject to fair and open competition with no preferential right of renewal for incumbents.
Bids today are evaluated and awarded via a competitive process, according to Park Service staff.
During each busy summer season, El Portal Market staffed up to 12 employees, and during the slower winters the business gets by with about four employees, Dunbar-Kari said.
Public affairs staff for Yosemite National Park could not be reached to comment this week seeking perspective on the concessioner change at El Portal Market.
Dunbar-Kari posted to Facebook back in August when she learned of the Park Service decision.
“Sending a heartfelt thank you to the community of El Portal for supporting the market for the past seven and a half years,” Dunbar-Kari wrote. “Sadly, we learned this week that the next contract was awarded to a different concessionaire. We loved seeing so many of you at the store and sharing in your lives. It's hard to walk away. And of course, an enormous thank you to the best staff in the Sierra! You are the reason our store felt like home to all our visitors, neighbors and friends.”
The old El Portal Market was destroyed by an electrical fire in April 2008, and at that point the Park Service announced the store operation would be relocated to the former El Portal Motor Inn.
The old market, built in 1934, was described as one of the town’s oldest buildings and a cornerstone of the El Portal community. It served as a general merchandise store for 74 years, as well as a community meeting place.
The old market originally served visitors travelling to Yosemite National Park by railroad. Between 1966 and March 2008, the market was operated under a general partnership of Vaughn, Vaughn, and Carter, according to the Park Service. Before the fire, Dunbar-Kari was scheduled to open the market in late spring 2008, when renovations were complete.
According to the Park Service, the current market building was renovated with installation of automatic fire alarms and sprinklers monitored by the park emergency communications center.
The El Portal Administrative Site is an area of federally owned land under National Park Service jurisdiction outside of Yosemite National Park and adjacent to the western park boundary on Highway 140. In 1958, the administrative site, including the community of El Portal, was designated by Congress to be used for park operations, housing and administration.
On Nov. 1, when concessioners change at El Portal Market, it will be eight months since the primary concessioner for Yosemite guest services, Aramark, replaced the outgoing contractor, Delaware North.
A legal dispute between the Park Service and Delaware North remains unresolved. Delaware North lawyers claim ownership and the right to payment for tradenames, trademarks, and other intellectual property they’ve said are worth as much as $51 million, according to the Park Service.
To counter those claims, the Park Service changed the names of several landmark locations in Yosemite. The 89-year-old rustic guest lodge that used to be called the Ahwahnee is now known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, and Curry Village, the guest camp that dates to 1899, is now known as Half Dome Village.
Aramark is in the first year of a 15-year contract to provide guest services for more than 4 million visitors annually in Yosemite National Park. In 2015, the Government Accounting Office estimated the value of the contract awarded to Aramark to be greater than $2 billion over 15 years. Delaware North grossed more than $146 million in Yosemite in 2014.