Trying to stop bleeding at Great Park

The Orange County Great Park board of directors has approved a five-year business plan that supporters say will put an end to the financial hemorrhaging in the annual budget.

Although directors Larry Agran and Beth Krom each suggested alternatives, the board, made up of the Irvine City Council, ultimately voted 3 to 2 in favor of the plan. Agran and Krom dissented.

"The days of the $10-million annual burn rate are gone," Great Park Chief Executive Officer Michael Ellzey said.

In 2005, the Great Park started out with about $200 million, and $73 million was added via earned revenue and subsequent agreements with developer FivePoint Communities, according to previous reports. The available fund balance will total $21.5 million by July 1, according to the business plan.

In addition to charging for parking and carousel and balloon rides, which starts Thursday, the proposal adds admission prices to some programs and eliminates others programs all together.

Suggestions include $6 for seasonal garden workshops, $20 for sports clinics, $13 for summer games, $3 for children's gardening workshops and $1 for the park's galleries — each an effort to boost the bottom line.

Each of those activities has been free.

Krom introduced the concept of a day or annual pass.

"I'm afraid that almost everything we're doing right now is sending the message that we don't want you to come," she said. "'Please stop coming.'"

Also in the plan is a proposal to ax 10 full-time staff positions.

The 1,447-acre municipal park has lost about $1.4 billion worth of redevelopment funding.

"When it is said that we're running out of money, that is only if you look at the available fund balance," Agran said. "No, you need to look at the entire net worth of an organization. And I would like the staff, as I requested last time, to start giving us a net worth presentation, which was $650 million on July 12, 2005, and today is $804 million."

The board agreed to partner with nonprofit organizations and approved $27 million in Irvine Co. park in-lieu fees.

Staff also suggested utilizing tax revenue collected on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station property, based on 2008's Measure R. Between $2.5 million and $3 million could be channeled toward Great Park operations, they said.

The plan will be reviewed at the April 23 board meeting and again in the coming months, before being finalized ahead of the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.

"I know change is painful, but we have to be responsible," Mayor Steven Choi said.

The plan proposed the creation of a Great Park Rehabilitation Asset Management Plan (RAMP), drawing on 5% of the city's annual undesignated revenue.

While these resources are expected to accrue to $8.1 million over 10 years, Chairman Jeffrey Lalloway suggested making calculations on a five-year basis, after which things tend to get a bit "speculative," he said.

He endorsed CEO Ellzey's statement — "It's time to change the way we do business" — to avoid running out of money.

Vice Chairwoman Christina Shea requested that city staff analyze the park's programs and return with detailed information about community engagement and resources needed for each.

With that information in hand, the board will be better equipped to make a call about which programs merit saving, while others can be nixed, she said.

Having recently visited a bustling Dana Point-based petting zoo, she discussed the opportunity of bringing this type of a family-friendly venture to the Great Park.

As things stand, the plan proposes doing away with several of the park's 67 programs, including the annual New Year's Eve and anniversary parties, Pacific Symphony concert, Great Park Retail Store, Farm + Food Lab Expansion Project and Veteran's Oral Histories.

"Numbers don't lie," Shea said. "You can spin a tale as much as you want, but when the numbers tell you the money's running out, the money's running out."

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