As they float skyward this summer aboard a $5-million tethered helium balloon ride at Irvine’s Great Park, passengers on the free attraction might notice some unusual amenities on the ground:
* a $300,000 tent -- designed to resemble an airplane hangar -- that costs $75,000 a year to clean;
* a four-person visitor center crew hired under a $370,000 annual contract;
* a series of orange dots painted along the park’s entrance road at a cost of $14,000.
When the 15-minute voyage ends, a French-trained pilot earning a six-figure salary will use a remote control to lower the craft to earth.
The helium-filled airship attraction is expected to lose about $850,000 its first year, partly because the Irvine City Council -- which is developing the 1,350-acre Great Park -- plans to allow passengers to ride free of charge until January. From then on the city will charge $20 for adults and $13 for children.
The red ink doesn’t worry Great Park spokeswoman Marsha Burgess. “I wouldn’t characterize it as a deficit,” she said.
Burgess calls the cash outlay “the cost of operation,” saying the balloon is an integral piece of the suburban oasis’ design.
Irvine officials plan to spend more than $1 billion transforming the former El Toro Marine base’s cracked airstrips and dusty terrain into a dramatic landscape of lakes, orchards, athletic fields, museums and a rugged, man-made canyon. When completed, the expanse will be among the nation’s largest urban parks -- larger than Manhattan’s 843-acre Central Park and San Francisco’s 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park, but smaller than Los Angeles’ 4,200-acre Griffith Park.
The ride’s expected deficit has disconcerted some Irvine officials who worry that if the park’s first endeavor is a money loser, the city might have to cut corners on other planned features such as the 60-foot-deep canyon, a botanical garden and a sports complex.
“This is a microcosm of how this park is run,” said Councilwoman Christina Shea. “We are going to be hitting a wall sometime and we are going to be upside-down financially, and we are not going to have the park we all envisioned.”
On Saturday, the Great Park’s balloon is scheduled to begin flying from a 5-acre plot inside the former Marine base, which is being converted to housing tracts, businesses and the Great Park.
Planners are banking on 50,000 passengers a year, roughly equal to ridership on the Philadelphia Zoo’s tethered helium balloon, which operates in a venue visited by 1 million people annually.
The anticipated shortfall has led the City Council to consider placing ads on the balloon, including a banner ad on the balloon surface, smaller ads on its gondola, and plants trimmed into the shape of corporate logos. Irvine estimated it could make as much $880,000 a year.
That has led the council to debate balancing the desire to recoup some expenses with the prospect of the craft looking overly commercial.
“We live in a very commercial society. The park should be a respite from the onslaught of advertising,” said Ken Smith, the park’s designer. “To put ads on it would be a mistake.”
The cost to operate the balloon and visitor center doesn’t include start-up charges, such as $1.6 million for site design and landscaping, and $1.9 million -- donated by the Lennar Corp. -- to buy the helium-filled ship, install a landing pad and get FAA clearance to fly the craft. Lennar is developing housing tracts around the park.
Irvine officials also have tacked on $838,000 to build a road to the balloon, plant citrus trees and buy a special 50-by-50-foot tent that will serve as the visitor center.
Smith’s team specified that the tent “emulate an aircraft hangar” by having an angled roof, taller at the entrance and sloping to the back. “No deviations or substitutions are acceptable,” the design team said.
Several of Irvine’s balloon project contracts were awarded without competitive bids.
For instance, Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., which runs a car test track at El Toro and hosts corporate shindigs at the site, will receive $75,000 to wash the outside of the visitor center tent six times a year and clean the interior weekly.
Tim Watson of Clean Awn, an industrial-fabric maintenance company in Lakewood, said he would have been happy to do the job for $54,000.
Burgess had no comment on Watson’s pricing.
Automotive Marketing Consultants will also be paid $370,000 to staff the visitor center with four full-time employees -- more than $90,000 per position. The company will receive an additional $64,000 to manage the balloon’s website and telephone call center.
Another big payout -- $380,000 -- goes to Aerophile, a French balloon manufacturer, to pilot the helium ship and operate the diesel-powered winch that hoists and lowers it.
Aerophile’s contract calls for two full-time pilots and a hostess. After subtracting maintenance costs, that works out to more than $100,000 per pilot.
In contrast, Aerophile’s main competitor, the Great American Balloon Co., which flies a tethered craft at Niagara Falls, pays pilots $21,000 to $52,000 a year.
“It’s not like they need a college degree,” said Shaun Asbury, the general manager of Great American Balloon.
Irvine officials said they didn’t seek competitive bids because Aerophile made their balloon and might void the one-year warranty if the craft isn’t maintained and operated to company standards.
Tethered balloons trace their roots to the 1800s, when gas-filled airships on leashes were used for military observation and as tourist attractions in such cities as Paris, Budapest, Rome and Chicago.
In modern times, outfitted with gondolas that can carry 30 passengers, the balloons have enjoyed a global renaissance. But only a few hover over the U.S. -- at Niagara Falls, the Philadelphia Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Most make a profit. Philadelphia’s helium-filled behemoth charges half as much per ticket as the Great Park plans to but makes money by letting a corporate sponsor put a logo on the craft. In San Diego, a private balloon company pays all costs and gives a cut of ticket revenue to the Wild Animal Park.
But some tethered balloons have gone bust. The Niagara Falls airship originally flew over Las Vegas, but left town because of poor attendance.
And a Baltimore balloon closed in 2005 after a mechanical snafu stranded 16 passengers in the air for two hours, according to the Baltimore Sun. The Baltimore ship now soars over an Asian resort.
Liability insurance for tethered balloons can be steep. The Great Park is paying $110,000 a year for its policy.
The Philadelphia Zoo paid even more -- $150,000 -- but then found a broker specializing in high-risk policies who eliminated the fee by rolling balloon coverage into the zoo’s overall insurance package.
Burgess acknowledged that the balloon might stay in the red beyond its inaugural year. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a balloondoggle, she said.
Great Park officials hope their airship -- which is set to fly 24 hours a week, Thursdays through Sundays -- will eventually make money.
But they say it’s more important to follow the vision of park designer Smith, who floated the balloon concept as one of the site’s signature elements.
Not included in any budget is how much publicity balloons can generate, said Philadelphia Zoo spokeswoman Gretchen Toner. “Ours has become a city icon,” she said. “People have even proposed on it.”
Officials have similar aspirations for the Great Park balloon, which will be visible for miles as a symbol of the military base’s future makeover.
But turning a profit? That’s a different matter.
“If you could make money on parks,” Burgess said, “the private sector would be building them.”
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Up in the air
Starting Saturday, visitors to Irvine’s Great Park will be able to rise 500 feet aboard a tethered helium balloon. The ride will operate four days a week and offer free rides until January.
Some costs associated with the balloon’s operation:
* $380,000 a year for two balloon pilots, a hostess and maintenance.
*$370,000 a year to staff the visitor center with three full-time employees and a supervisor.
*$300,000 to buy a 50-by-50- foot tent intended to simulate the appearance of an aircraft hangar. An additional $75,000 a year will be spent to clean the tent.
*$100,000 a year for a balloon replacement fund. The lifespan of a balloon is five years, so money will be set aside every year for a new one.
*$94,000 a year for portable restrooms.
*$52,000 annually for security between 1 and 5 a.m.
*$30,000 a year for trash removal.
Source: Orange County Great Park, Irvine, Aerophile