Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr.'s public crusade against "foreign ownership" of tourist facilities in Yosemite National Park paid off yesterday when Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. agreed to sell its park business to a nonprofit group.
Matsushita, which acquired the Yosemite concession business last month when it bought the entertainment giant MCA Inc., has agreed "in principle" to sell the MCA subsidiary to the private National Park Foundation for $49.5 million, well below the amount the company had been seeking, officials said.
The sale, which takes effect when MCA's concession contract expires in 1993, represents a significant victory for Lujan, whose public campaign to force Matsushita from Yosemite prompted charges of "Japan-bashing" and focused new attention on the role of private enterprise in the national parks.
"The secretary turned up the volume last week, and they obviously were listening," said an official of the National Park Service, which is part of the Interior Department.
Department officials hope the sale will open the way to begin rewriting rules that govern park concessionaires, which have been accused of pursuing profits at the expense of natural values that parks are supposed to protect.
Like other park concessionaires operating under long-term contracts, MCA's Yosemite Park & Curry Co. has built up large investments in hotels, restaurants and other facilities, a situation blamed for discouraging would-be competitors who might be willing to cut a better deal with the Park Service.
The agreement stipulates that the National Park Foundation, chartered by Congress to channel private donations to the parks, will purchase Curry Co. when its contract expires in 1993, then donate its property to the National Park Service. The Park Service will then negotiate contract terms with a new concession operator aimed at returning substantially higher profits to taxpayers and the park.
"There probably isn't an exact model that fits all concession operations, but this one looks like an extremely good deal and one that we can all be very proud of," Park Service Director James M. Ridenour said in an interview yesterday. "We'll own all those buildings and the equipment, so they won't be able to restrict competition in the future."
Park Service officials said they will be negotiating with other concessionaires about possible buyouts of investments in park facilities with the aim of achieving similar benefits elsewhere.
Curry Co., the nation's largest park concessionaire, currently returns 75 cents of every $100 in gross receipts to the Park Service, an amount that Interior officials have described as ludicrously low. The company makes between $10 million and $15 million in profits each year.
Curry Co. has become a public relations embarrassment for Matsushita, which is sensitive to concerns about the sale of U.S. cultural assets and hired former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and former Democratic Party chairman Robert S. Strauss to help smooth the MCA purchase.
Baker and Strauss initially had raised the possibility of donating Curry Co. to the National Park Service, but later told Lujan that the company could not afford to give away an investment it valued at more than $100 million. Instead, they said MCA would search for an American buyer and donate the profits to the National Park Foundation in the meantime.
Last week, smarting from suggestions that he had been outfoxed by the Japanese firm, Lujan went on the offensive, lamenting the "impression that the Japanese were buying up the whole United States" and noting pointedly that he does not drive a Japanese car. Lujan said he would not approve the MCA proposal and threatened to declare Curry Co. in breach of contract.
Newspaper editorials denounced Lujan's attack as heavy-handed and even racist, but the remarks played well with the public and on Capitol Hill. Interior officials acknowledged that Lujan raised the Japan issue partly as a negotiating ploy.
Under the agreement reached yesterday afternoon between Interior and MCA attorneys, the company agreed to lend the Park Foundation the purchase amount of $49.5 million at a favorable interest rate of 8.5 percent, officials said. In addition, MCA will donate $6 million to the foundation, officials said.
"We're pleased to get this matter behind us," said an MCA spokeswoman, who added that the arrangement "accomplished our goal of an orderly transition to a qualified American buyer."