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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Director Sure Parks Can Turn Green

Finances: Board says they must be self-supporting, but public has opposed Johnny Johnston's ideas. Now he sees a way out through golf.

September 10, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnny Johnston is in a bind. Faced with an excruciatingly tight budget of $1.2 million, the county's General Services Agency director is under orders to do what few have done before: turn public parks into moneymakers.

Johnston has virtually no road map for his task. Many of his ideas have been met by public derision. One resident, incensed by a proposal to turn the roadside strip of beach at the Rincon into a profit-making parking lot, lent Johnston a new nickname: Dracula.

His ideas just kept springing back up.

"I don't mind being known as Count Dracula," said Johnston, 57. "I am relentless."

And despite his hefty task, Johnston--a wry, collegial man--said he won't take a stake through the heart, even as some people question if his mission is possible.

He says it is, but if he doesn't deliver, some parks may close.

"Is it viable? Probably not," said Doug Houston, a park agency lobbyist with the California State Assn. of Counties. "It depends on the community. Do they want golf courses or do they want community parks?"

Johnston is hoping one can pay for the other.

In Ventura County, where property and sales tax revenues are limited, the county struggles to pay its bills. A 1996 Board of Supervisors mandate that the county's 27 parks become 100% self-sufficient has led Johnston and other officials to offer a series of proposals that one after the other has proved unpopular.

One called for an amphitheater in Camarillo nearly as big as the Hollywood Bowl; residents feared it would lead to traffic jams and environmental harm. Another was a massive Moorpark theme park, which has since been scaled back to a simple golf course. Then there was the plan to charge fees for expanded overnight RV parking on the Rincon Highway north of Ventura.

Two months ago, the Rincon plan prompted residents and surfers wearing Hawaiian shirts to jam a Board of Supervisors meeting, where they accused the county of attempting "stealth" runs around the community.

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Such is Johnston's dilemma. His parks must make money, but so far most of his ideas to generate revenue have been shot down.

"Frankly, poor Johnny has a difficult job," said county parks commissioner Karl Krause. "He has a mandate to make the parks self-sufficient and yet, politically, there are certain things that just aren't feasible."

Things weren't always this difficult. In 1996, county supervisors agreed to split the parks and harbor department into separate agencies--depriving parks of what one official called "the goose that lays the golden egg."

That realignment forced the parks department to wean itself from half of its $2.4-million budget, then subsidized by Channel Islands Harbor, and survive from the money it could make on fees.

Before the change, Ventura County parks were the envy of other communities throughout the state.

Now, Channel Islands Harbor--despite keeping the money it once gave away--has seen little progress toward a series of ambitious proposals announced four years ago that included building an aquarium, high-rise office complexes and apartment buildings. And the parks department is struggling to make up a $300,000 deficit.

Johnston, GSA director since early 1999, has since slashed budgets in the parks department, let the staff dwindle by more than half to 15 people and dipped into reserves that now stand at only about $50,000, he said.

He has resorted to attempting to give some parks to surrounding cities--such as Soule Park in Ojai and Tapo Canyon Park in Simi Valley--to get rid of the cost of upkeep. Community parks are a revenue drain: They require maintenance and bring in zero dollars.

The public shouldn't be expected to pay for day-use parks that have always been free, most people agree. And big-ticket, run-like-a-business moneymakers, such as conference centers and theme parks, have proven overwhelmingly unpopular with nearby residents fearful of overdevelopment.

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So Johnston is looking to golf as the solution.

In late July, the Board of Supervisors approved an 18-hole golf course at Happy Camp Regional Park north of Moorpark, a greatly scaled-down plan from a theme park and convention center complex imagined at the site a decade ago.

A private developer would lease the land and pay for building the course, which Johnston believes could make as much as $300,000 for the county by its fifth year, enough to keep his department in the black.

Two more courses are proposed, one in Santa Paula and another at the site of the proposed Camarillo amphitheater, a concept abandoned in March 1999 after years of anger from residents. But no one knows exactly when, or if, those courses would materialize.

Officials say that if these three courses are built, a swell of golfers willing to fork out about $50 for a chance to tee off will help pay for the county's parks.

But it will clearly be an uphill battle.

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