Communications and strategy firm Forde and Mollrich for years was paid an annual $1.2-million retainer fee for public relations work, an amount that was cut in half last summer. Two balloon pilots and a hostess have for years been paid $380,000 a year to operate the park's signature attraction. A six-piece band was paid $2,300 to play for the ride's 2007 unveiling. Roughly $18,650 was spent trucking in more than 100 tons of snow for a 2010 "snow day" event, plus $5,000 for gloves.
Some city leaders said the spending on plans, public relations and events was necessary to secure a world-class design, build support for the project and entice visitors.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Great Park: A photo caption with an article in the Oct. 27 Section A about development of the Orange County Great Park referred to the park's balloon attraction as a hot-air balloon. The balloon is filled with helium.
"We had to invest a lot to let people know there's a park coming," Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang said.
Others, including Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, have called the spending on plans and no-bid contracts reckless and suggested the money could have been put to better use by building ball fields and opening up more parkland.
Lalloway said he was "saddened by a potentially wonderful project that has been financially mismanaged."
He doubts whether some of master design's showpiece amenities, such as the 2.5-mile-long canyon that was to be created in the middle of the park, will ever be built.
Sell some land?
The project's fiscal decay has left some to consider a smaller, scaled-back park or one that will be built with the help of private business.
The Anaheim Ducks, for instance, are in talks with the city to build ice skat- ing facilities there. Another firm could build a concert venue to replace the nearby Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.
Others, including Larry Agran -- a 26-year veteran of the Irvine council and a park booster -- say Irvine could raise money by selling off parkland for up to $4 million an acre, perhaps for a hotel, resort or high school.
"We own close to 1,500 acres of land free and clear and we can develop it in any way we see fit," Agran said.
Agran predicts the Great Park could be completed in 15 to 20 years, if the city can get its hands on more money.
In the near term, Irvine's best hope for expanding the park could lie in a deal being negotiated with housing developer FivePoint Communities Inc.
The developer has offered to build $171 million in park facilities over the next five years, including dozens of soccer fields, tennis courts and baseball diamonds, a forested area and a lake. In exchange, the city would transfer some 40 acres to FivePoint and allow the developer to more than double the number of homes around the park.
Small but popular
Though it falls far short of what was promised, the sliver of parkland that exists is a popular destination, city records show.
Attendance has climbed from 42,000 visitors in 2007 when the balloon ride opened to 600,000 last year, when visitors poured in to attend hundreds of events, including sports clinics, concerts, farmers markets, festivals and circus acts.
Still, most of the property remains behind fences and off-limits to the public.
The runways are leased out for auto testing, television commercials, RV storage and cycling races. A refurbished hangar is rented out for weddings and high school proms.
Another stretch is home to an industrial-sized composting operation. A sign posted at a fruit tree orchard called "The Giving Grove," which donates produce to local food banks, warns visitors to keep out.
A wildlife corridor is supposed to one day snake through the property. But for now, coyotes, bobcats and other creatures roam the base's runways and weedy fields anyway.
Some visitors want more.
Wai-Kin Soo and his wife, Rachel Soo, are regular visitors, taking their twin toddler boys to ride the carousel and play on the grass. They've attended art gallery shows and free outdoor concerts and bring out-of- town relatives to take in the view from the big balloon.
"I wish more was developed," said Wai-Kin, a landscape architect who admires the park's design.
"But it just got hammered by the perfect storm. For what it is, I think they're doing their best."
Times staff writers Elizabeth Frank, Jeff Gottlieb and Doug Smith contributed to this report.