By: Irvine Mayor Steven Choi
NEWS FROM THE GREAT PARK
During my campaign for Mayor, I repeatedly stated my belief that the Great Park needs some important changes. I am very pleased that Councilmembers Jeff Lalloway and Christina Shea share this view, and we have been very busy. You may have read about some of these changes already.
First, we reduced the size of the Great Park Board of Directors, from nine members to five, and those five are the City Councilmembers. With the State’s recent dissolution of all redevelopment agencies, responsibility for the Great Park now rests solely with the City of Irvine, and I believe that all Board members should be directly accountable to our citizens. That was not the case with the larger Board. While the other four Directors were good people, they live in Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Newport Beach and Santa Ana, whose residents have nothing at stake and nothing to lose.
The most commonly heard argument from those who opposed this action is that it limits the public’s access to the decision-making body. Obviously, I do not agree. We still have separate Board meetings that are open to the public, whose comments are always requested and welcomed. Then actions go on to the City Council meeting agenda, again with public comments, always requested and welcomed. The public’s access to the process is exactly the same.
In order to help streamline management of the Great Park, we also brought the Park under the direct supervision of the City Manager, and he, in turn, is consolidating a number of functions with other City processes to be more efficient and effective. One of the benefits we have seen already is the reduced amount of time required for a meeting.
Because we have also instructed the City Manager and Park staff to only agendize real work and to eliminate the numerous presentations whose only requested action is to “receive and file”, we are able to get our work done in just a couple of hours once a month. That alone cuts down on a good amount of staff time.
We have also begun to deal with the Great Park’s finances, which is my biggest worry. Briefly, here is the situation:
We received $200 million to build the Great Park (which we are contractually obligated to do) from Lennar when they bought the former MCAS El Toro. Over the years, we have taken in another $73 million. During that time, we also were counting on funds from our redevelopment agency, but last year the State did away with them and reclaimed the money.
By the end of June, only about $21 million will remain out of the $273 million. What will we have to show for the $250 million we spent? About 100 acres of Park, and about 100 acres of agriculture. That leaves over 1,100 acres of abandoned and blighted land. I fought for years against what I believed were overly generous no-bid contracts that, in my opinion, wasted millions and millions of dollars, but I lost those fights repeatedly to Councilmembers Larry Agran, Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang. And now we are almost out of money.
After I was elected Mayor, I finally received the comprehensive report on the revenues and expenditures at the Great Park that I had requested long before, and I found it appalling, particularly given our limited resources. Currently, the Great Park takes in about $15 million a year, but spending for the programs, all of which have been free, totals about $17 million. Some of our subsidies were shocking:
· Over $100 per attendee at the independent film series
· Over $100 per attendee at the Chamber music series
· $15 per balloon rider
And the annual Anniversary Celebration runs about $500,000 each year.
At this rate, we are going to run out of money in a very few years. Our first step is to stop the bleeding, and that is why we will now charge $10 to ride the balloon ($5 for kids) and $2 to ride the carousel, for example, and why we will not hold the annual Anniversary parties.
Councilmembers Agran and Krom argued strongly against these actions. They would like all the programs to continue to be free – all 67 of them, and in a perfect world, I would, too, but we have to start to build the Park with the very limited resources we have left.
But if their point is that there is not much to do at the Park, or that people will only go there if it is free because the Great Park is small and lacks grass, trees, and trails, then I agree. We need to build a Great Park – a 100-acre park with an agricultural field next to it is not a Great Park. We must do something other than host parties.
The Solar Decathlon at the Great Park
The City of Irvine will proudly welcome the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013 and XPO at the Great Park in October. In fact, this will be the first Decathlon held somewhere other than the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 800 college students composing 20 teams from all over the world will design, build and operate solar powered homes. Their efforts will be judged for their energy efficiency, cost effectiveness and attractiveness. We expect 100,000 people will attend this 10-day event.
However, this presents an added complication to the Great Park’s already tenuous finances. When the opportunity to host this event was presented to the Great Park Board and the City Council last May, staff and the consultants told us that the event would cost about $3.3 million, offset by a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy, with major sponsors in the wings, so the cost would be completely covered without any relying on any City resources. With only months left before the Decathlon, we learned that the City’s consultants had only raised $150,000, and the Implementation Plan was six months late. That was just unacceptable. We directed the City Manager to take direct control of this event, with our close supervision.
I am committed to the success of the Solar Decathlon. At the same time, I am adamant that we will not raise taxes or use our General Fund to build the park.