Little more than a week after selling his entertainment empire to a Japanese firm, MCA Inc. Chairman Lew R. Wasserman rejected a request by the U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday to donate the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. "to the American people."
The Curry Co., an MCA subsidiary, operates and owns a multimillion-dollar interest in most of the restaurants, stores and lodgings at Yosemite National Park.
In refusing the Interior Department's request, Wasserman reiterated to park officials that the Curry Co. will be sold to an American buyer within 12 months as part of the overall $6.6-billion purchase of his entertainment conglomerate by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Japan's largest electronics company.
The arrangement, Wasserman said, reflects the interests of the National Park Service, park visitors, "and, importantly, our stockholders."
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. had asked Wasserman and Matsushita Executive Vice President Masahiko Hirata in a letter Tuesday to donate the park operation to the Park Service. Hirata has not yet replied and a company spokesman would not comment on the request.
"Such a dramatic gesture would be recognized as a remarkably generous and public-spirited demonstration of the MCA/MEI commitment to the values of Yosemite National Park and what they stand for in the minds of the American people," Lujan wrote, enclosing a memorandum from National Park Service Director James Ridenour outlining the advantages of such a donation.
"We had hoped for better news," said Park Service spokesman George Berklacy, responding to Wasserman's rejection. "Obviously, any sale or transfer has to involve the National Park Service. Secretary Lujan and Director Ridenour will continue to work with the two companies to strike the best possible deal in the interest of the American public and Yosemite National Park."
In the memo sent to MCA and Matsushita, Ridenour said the current Park Service contract with the Curry Co. to run the park concession is unduly favorable to the firm and will become less lucrative when the agreement expires in 1993.
Ridenour, in an interview Wednesday from Washington, said MCA seemed inclined early on to donate all or part of the company to the government or to a private foundation.
In explaining the turnaround, Ridenour said attorneys for the corporations indicated that the value of the Curry Co. was "made part of the deal with Matsushita, so there are expectations" of making money when it sells.
Estimates of the company's worth range from $50 million to $300 million. The company owns about half of the buildings in Yosemite Valley, but the land is owned by the National Park Service.
MCA's decision was not unexpected, Interior Department officials said, but Lujan and Ridenour decided to make the formal request anyway in hopes of rekindling the corporation's initial interest in making a donation.
In response to the Park Service's concerns about a foreign-owned concession in a national park, MCA and Matsushita last month agreed to place the Curry Co. in escrow until an American buyer could be found.
In the meantime, the profits of the company are to be donated to the National Park Foundation, a quasi-governmental group that funnels private money into the Park Service. The money flow will stop if the Park Service fails to approve the new buyer within 30 days after it is submitted for review.
"We believe this is a generous gift which will further the work of the (National Park Service)," Wasserman said in a written reply to Lujan on Wednesday.
Wasserman said the New York investment banking firms of Lazard Freres & Co. and Allen & Co. Inc. will assist in the sale of the Curry Co., and Bank of America will serve as the escrow agent.
The Park Service has not been the only party interested in receiving the Curry Co. as a donation.
The Yosemite Restoration Trust, a San Francisco-based group created in part by environmentalists, met with MCA officials last week to describe their operation in hopes of buying the company or receiving part of it as a donation, according to sources close to the group.
The Restoration Trust was formed to try to obtain the concession contract when it expires. If successful, the group has pledged to reduce development in Yosemite and return the profits to the park.
Curry Co. President Edward Hardy also is widely rumored to be interested in forming a corporation to buy the company. Curry officials, however, say that there is no active effort by any employee to buy the company.
Ridenour said he does not know what the Park Service will do next other than to try to get more revenue for the parks out of the new concession contract. Interior officials are still thinking strategy, he said.
"If you get any good ideas, give them to me," the park director said.