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City Seeks More Green From Park System : Finance: Commercial strategy for recreational space dismays critics.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles’ vast park system--one of the few sources of free recreational space for a city of 3.5 million citizens--is increasingly being viewed as City Hall’s new source of funding.

Mayor Richard Riordan, desperate for money to fund an expanded police force, has instructed recreation officials to make the parks home to such money-making concessions as water slides, batting cages and miniature golf courses. He also wants them to squeeze more money from 56 existing concessions.

But conservationists, lawmakers and former recreation officials are expressing misgivings about the idea of cashing in on the city’s 13,000 acres of parkland.

They worry that the strategy may damage the free-and-easy atmosphere of the park system and that new “pay-to-play” endeavors will eat up valuable recreational space and wildlife habitat while pricing poorer residents out of using parks.

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All this, critics say, has been proposed without a guarantee that concession profits will be spent to upgrade the parks.

“I think it’s inappropriate to change the feel of a park to that of an amusement park,” said Muriel Kotin, president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society. “I would hate to see the kind of informal, relaxed atmosphere of a park become the very commercial feel that you get at a theme park.”

Currently, 56 concessions, ranging from golf driving ranges to equine centers to video arcades, generate about $4 million annually for the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, a sum that has remained fairly level for the past three years.

But the Recreation and Parks Commission, a panel appointed by Riordan, recently hired a consultant to study the feasibility of adding dozens of new concessions in the Sepulveda Basin, Hansen Dam recreation area, Griffith Park and in parks in San Pedro and West Los Angeles.

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The goal is to squeeze another $1 million or so from existing concessions over the next 12 months and add three major new concessions and dozens of smaller ones over the next few years.

One of the most controversial money-making ideas is a proposal to develop two executive golf courses in the Chatsworth reservoir, a 1,300-acre refuge for hundreds of migratory birds and other wildlife. The plan raised the ire of environmentalists and an area lawmaker when it was proposed by the commission in May.

“It’s not Yellowstone or Yosemite, but you get the feeling when you are there that at least it’s not pavement and traffic,” said Sandy Wohlgemuth, an Audubon Society representative and member of a task force formed to preserve the reservoir.

Despite such heated reactions to some of the proposals, commission President Steven L. Soboroff defends the city’s overall money-making strategy. But he promises that the commission will be sensitive to the concerns of conservationists and others when it begins to consider new concessions over the next few months.

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“There is nothing cold about it,” he said. “We understand the concerns. We are not going to do it at the expense of recreation.”

The city’s plan follows a strategy launched by federal park officials last year to earn more money through additional concessions and higher admission fees throughout the national park system. The proposed overhaul would increase admission fees to such sites as Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks and revamp concession contracts for everything from hot dogs to horseback riding.

In fact, cities from Washington to Connecticut are turning to local parklands as a new source of revenue. In most cases, however, the strategy has generated detractors who are leery of the growing commercialization of public recreational space.

Jill Swift, a Sierra Club activist and former parks commissioner, said one of the flaws in the city’s strategy is that there is no guarantee an increase in concession revenues will be used to hire more maintenance workers or buy recreational equipment for the parks.

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Despite financial concerns, though, Recreations and Parks officials say Riordan and the City Council have treated the department well, considering the budget cuts and fiscal problems the city has recently endured.

While attrition and hiring freezes have reduced the size of many other departments, the Recreation and Parks Department has been allowed to replace employees who have retired or resigned so it can maintain its staffing level, said Steve Klippel, the department’s chief finance officer.

But Klippel concedes that he would like the department to be guaranteed at least a percentage of the concession revenue.

“We always want to get more money,” he said. “That is always our theme.”

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Soboroff, however, notes that concessions bring in only $4 million annually, while the department’s overall operating budget was nearly $90 million last year. This means that current concession revenues simply help pay the cost of running the department and are not being siphoned away to pay for other city services, he said.

The revenues from concessions are not seen as a solution to all the city’s problems, Soboroff said, but instead are a way to cut down on the cost of operating the department.

“We are not a profit center,” he said.

As part of its money-generating strategy, the city will also shorten the length of some contracts with private concession operators to generate more competition and thus higher revenues.

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In other cases, Soboroff said, the city will simply push private concession operators to give a bigger percentage of their revenues to the city.

For example, he said, the city now receives $1.5 million annually from the operators of the Greek Theater in Griffith Park. Soboroff said he believes the city can increase that amount to $2 million.

“It’s not a great lease,” he said.

Another idea, Soboroff said, is to install floodlights at golf driving ranges so the concessions can operate after dark. The department can also build two-story platforms so more golfers can use the range at the same time, he said.

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While conservationists worry that concessions will make public parks too expensive, the directors of some youth activity groups say they are not opposed to new concessions so long as they are tasteful and do not eat up too much open space.

Nate Wilson, the director of the Boys & Girls Club of Echo Park, said poor children already manage to scrape together enough money to pay for many recreational activities so he doesn’t fear that new concessions will drive them out of city parks.

“The kids, they are charged for uniforms to play baseball and uniforms for basketball and they come up with the money,” he said. “I don’t think it would hurt if it’s done the right way.”

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents parts of Central and South-Central Los Angeles, said he sees the addition of new concessions as an opportunity to create sorely needed jobs for inner-city youths.

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“If you give up a little open space to create a few jobs, I don’t think that is the worst thing that can happen,” he said.

Ridley-Thomas’ colleague, northwest San Fernando Valley Councilman Hal Bernson, however, has misgivings about the city’s concession strategy after previewing one proposed concession for his district.

A fiscal conservative, Bernson was outraged when the Recreation and Parks Department floated the plan to develop two nine-hole golf courses, a restaurant, a family entertainment center and a putting green in Chatsworth reservoir.

Although the reservoir has been empty since 1969 and cannot be filled due to seismic weakness, Bernson has been working for years to turn the wooded area into a preserve for the deer, coyotes and migratory birds who flourish there.

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“I’ve supported virtually every type of measure where it will save the city money,” he said. “But we don’t start destroying our heritage, our local treasures, to do it.”


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