The ambitious plan to build a $30-million private U.S. Fitness Academy was dealt a severe setback Friday as Orange County officials let expire a lease option on 175 acres of land in Laguna Niguel because the plan’s backers raised too little money for the training facility.
The county had intended to lease the undeveloped land for the academy at a cost of only $1 a year.
The academy, proposed as a training facility for the nation’s coaches, is the brainchild of former professional football coach George Allen, who vowed in 1985 to raise donations through his nonprofit National Fitness Foundation and to build the academy by the end of President Reagan’s Administration.
But Allen’s foundation raised only $2.7 million through 1987 and has spent nearly all of that, according to state and federal tax records. Much of the foundation’s money was spent trying to raise more money, typically by high-profile fund-raising award banquets, records show.
Moreover, the academy’s permit, issued by the state Coastal Commission, was allowed to expire on Sept. 11, county officials said.
“To date there has been no evidence, sadly, of progress being made either in the planning or the fund raising,” Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said Friday, the day the lease expired. “I was--and others were--caught up in the enthusiasm of the coach.”
Allen, who was in Dallas on Friday to receive an award for his contribution to American physical fitness, responded, “We didn’t get the (financial) support in Orange County . . . or any other support.
“There were just so many restrictions and obligations and problems to build in there that it’s almost an impossible assignment both financially and every other way. You have to put in roads, you have to bring in water, you have to build sewers, you have to bring in electricity.”
In an Oct. 12 letter to Allen, Riley wrote that “though your organization and this project have been the subject of much controversy, we (the Board of Supervisors) have given you our unequivocal support.
“However, without a substantive commitment from the foundation, we simply cannot justify the continuation of our endorsement.”
The letter also said that “a thorough review of the history of the project raised many questions as to the foundation’s ability to comply with the requirements of the option agreement.”
Last February, county officials granted an eight-month extension to the foundation to allow revisions in Allen’s proposal and the submission of new plans.
“To date, no plans or application have been submitted,” according to Riley’s letter. “It is the opinion of (the county’s) staff that the Fitness Foundation has not demonstrated a firm commitment to the project either financially or procedurally.”
The foundation’s former executive director, Hal Trumble, now working on a consultant basis for the academy project, said Friday that the foundation needed $3 million to $5 million to proceed with the first phase of the $30-million facility.
The entire project was scaled back earlier this year from a single $50 million, 250,000-square-foot structure to a more modest $30-million campus-style complex to be built in phases.
“There was no sense in spending a lot of money on preliminary stuff unless we had the financing in place to build Phase One,” Trumble said. “We have a lot of oral commitments from some big companies, and it all has to fit in together at one time.
“Nobody’s going to give us money and hope we make our goal,” he said.
Not everyone was saddened to learn that the lease option expired.
“I’m delighted,” said Elizabeth Brown, president of the private, nonprofit Laguna Greenbelt Inc., an environmental organization that lobbied to set aside the area as open space in the early 1970s.
“We fought it (the academy) all the way up to the Coastal Commission and back,” Brown said. “We never wanted it to be there. We never thought it was an appropriate use for the middle of that park.”
Allen and Riley said Friday that there is still an outside chance the academy can be built on the public land in the rolling meadows of Laguna Niguel. But neither seemed overly optimistic.
“If the coach can get a funding source and get these plans, it could happen and we might reconsider,” Riley said.
However, in about five months Orange County will finish plans to make the site part of the area’s proposed Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park, he said.
“We owe it to Orange County citizens to proceed on the development of that . . . park,” Riley said.
Now that the lease option has expired, it may be even more difficult for Allen to raise money for the Orange County site.
“The county was holding that space” for the academy, Riley said. “But we are going on with the ultimate planning of the area. This makes it very difficult for the coach to raise money” to build the academy there.
Allen conceded that it is unlikely he can raise the $4 million he estimates will be needed to keep the project in Orange County in time to satisfy the county.
“That’s a pretty big nut to overcome before you can break ground,” Allen said. “I’m going to continue on it. . . . It’s something that’s good. It’s something that’s needed.
“If we can pull it off in Orange County, fine, or we’ll do it somewhere else where there aren’t so many obstacles. I have had offers from other areas to build this without all these restrictions.”
Allen declined to identify the other locations.
Riley said he believes that Allen has received some financial commitments but that they are pledges for the academy’s operating expenses--"in-kind things, like food, shoes, these kinds of things,” rather than funds to pay for its construction.
“Certainly there have been a lot of notable people involved, including the President and Mrs. Reagan,” Riley said, referring to Reagan’s support of Allen’s goal.
Riley added that Allen’s enthusiasm for the project seemed to sell prospective backers on the project, at least at first.
“When they listen to him, everybody thinks it’s great,” Riley said. “When he leaves, they get thinking about it, and it (funding) doesn’t come through.”
Allen said: “I never give up. I’m not used to having setbacks, but we’ll overcome this.”