Great Park to World: Crisis? What Global Economic Crisis?

You'd think the dotcom crisis was just a bad dream, the housing bubble never burst and we'd mysteriously been time traveled back to the halcyon days of the Clinton economy considering the bullish way the OrangeCountyGreatPark Corporation is pushing the financial envelope.


With three of its nine members missing, including constant budget nag Christina Shea, the taxpayer-supported corporation's Board of Directors unanimously approved year-end budget adjustments Thursday that'll have the taxpayer-supported agency doling out $9.3 million for projects that largely either were not in their 2008-09 financial plan or had been funded at much lower levels.


The spending recommendations were approved despite city finance man Kurt Mowery's acknowledgement that the park is generating far less money in interest income. Less will also be reaped from previously anticipated golf course fees due to the links being scaled back from 45 to 18 holes.


But board chairman Larry Agran, an Irvine city councilman, said the park "has not lost a penny" amid the worldwide economic meltdown. Recalling all the times in his long political career he has heard government should act more like business, and looking at the AIGs, GMs and Lehman Brothers of the world, he said he is glad that city-as-business philosophy has not taken root in his town.


"We are able to look forward to the next calendar year with great anticipation," he said.

Among the projects approved for funding was '09 capital improvement projects primarily tied to cultural and entertainment events to be presented ($4.2 million); the actual costs of those events ($2 million); production costs incurred by Irvine Barclay Theatre for voluntarily helping secure talent for many of those events ($500,000, plus $100,000 for other "reimbursable expenses" that may pop up along the way); extending the scope of the private Great Park Design Studio's work ($700,000); and a feasibility study aimed at the creation of a water science park ($320,000).

Another $1.1 million and change was doled out for lobbying, public relations, aircraft restoration work, engineering change orders and architectural plan checking (not to be confused with this plan checking). Nearly all these funds went to private contractors.

Board actions are actually recommendations to the Irvine City Council, which has final say on Great Park matters since the 4,700-acre, former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was annexed into the city for the multi-use development. But since all council members, including Shea, sit on the OCGP board, the board and council always vote in lockstep.

Rod Cooper, the Great Park's operations manager, said much of the cultural and entertainment spending is necessary because '09 will see a 64 percent increase in the number of events (36 total for the year) and an 88 percent increase in the number of people coming to those events at the park site, which right now boasts a balloon ride, a preview park, an old hangar converted into a entertainment venue, recreational vehicle parking (All Star Services will be re-upped for another year at $1.7 million), a smelly composting area, exhibits, a runway for rent, farming and assorted other uses.

An ice rink larger than the one erected at the nearby Irvine Spectrum will go up this winter. Among the events the Great Park is trying to woo is Cirque du Soleil. Cooper said a great push will be made in the coming year to find corporate sponsors to defray costs.

Agran said he has looked at the numbers and while the Great Park is not park of the Orange County regional park system, it is already outdrawing most non-beach county parks, and he vowed it will, "in my view," become more popular than all county parks. 

Calling on Irvine Barclay Theatre president Doug Rankin, Agran asked if the Great Park is positioned to become a nationally recognized outdoor cultural destination on par with Vermont's Wolf Trap, Boston's Tanglewood or Colorado's Red Rocks. "Yes," replied Rankin, "it has a good feel."

Despite the lack of home building by the Great Park adjacent Lennar Corp., whose development and pay-to-play fees provide most of the ambituous project's juice, visitors in the coming year will see a lot of city-initiated work, including the chewing up of much runway and the demolition of 41 former base buildings, according to Great Park CEO Michael Ellzey. Besides work associated with expansion of entertainment events, initial activities related to the future sports complex will get under way during the first quarter of the year, he said.

Visitors will also see a lot of cars, both parked at the Great Park for events and temporarily for the collapsing auto industry, if this previously reported plan comes to fruition. Board members were assured parking and traffic plans have been mapped out to ensure smooth operations. As bigger events are held at the park, the city is gaining experience on how to handle crowds, officials said.

And there should be no excuse for the public not getting the word about what's happening at the park as the board agreed to recommend the council hire former OC Metro editor Kevin O'Leary as the Great Park public information officer. A $75,000 deal runs six months, until the end of the current fiscal year, at which time a more permanent contract will be presented to the board.

Though board member and Irvine Councilman Steven Choi questioned why the city needs to hire a Great Park PIO in addition to paying for the city's PIO, a private public relations firm hired to work on the Great Park, political consultant Forde & Mollrich's PR people, the Design Studio's PR people and probably a few other assorted others orbitting the park like a money-consuming space shuttle, he ultimately joined in the unanimous vote approving the PIO.

Choi was apparently assured all those flacks are needed due to the complexity of the project. 

Beth Krom, his colleague on the board and City Council, said the park has the "tools" in place to ensure it fares better than government agencies struggling amid the national economy's woes. "I think we have just a perfect complement of resources to work with," she said.


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