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Irvine hopes Solar Decathlon brightens the Great Park's future

In the wake of major budget cuts to the Great Park, city officials hope the nationwide competition will draw entrants and visitors, create jobs and, perhaps most important, bring prestige to the park.

March 31, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times

For the former Marine base long envisioned as a sprawling metropolitan park, Irvine officials say they're hopeful one upcoming event could help the Great Park live up to its name.

The Solar Decathlon, a nationwide competition in which college students build environmentally friendly houses, will move in October from a Washington, D.C., greenbelt to the Great Park, drawing hundreds of entrants and even more visitors — filling hotel rooms, creating jobs and, perhaps more important, bringing prestige to the park. As one councilman put it, the decathlon could be "like the World's Fair."

But at what cost?

City leaders have recently approved dramatic cuts to the park's budget, a belt-tightening proponents said was critical to making the decathlon financially viable for a park that has been hemorrhaging money.

Events have been canceled. That free ride in the giant citrus balloon? That'll be $10, please ($5 for kids). And it'll now cost $2 to climb aboard the painted horses on the carousel, which also used to be free.

"If you want to ride the carousel," said Councilwoman Christina L. Shea, "you're just going to have to pony up."

The acrimonious budget decision earlier this month underscored a tension at the core of what the vision for the Great Park should be, a decade after it was approved by Orange County voters.

Neither side has pulled any punches: One faction — which sees itself as pushing for a grand municipal space, like San Diego's Balboa Park or Griffith Park in Los Angeles — decries the new leaders on the park's governing board as diverting money from developing that vision.

The newcomers have criticized their predecessors as spendthrifts who burned through the more than $200 million in the park's coffers, jeopardizing the Solar Decathlon. Only a small corner of the park is open to the public, and much of the former base remains fenced off.

Irvine bested nearly two dozen cities — San Diego, Austin and Las Vegas, among them — in vying for the biennial event, which is organized by the U.S. Department of Energy and has been held on the National Mall in Washington since its 2002 inception. Victory came with a $1-million federal grant.

In October the city will host teams from about 20 colleges that will build solar-powered houses, designed to be cost-effective, energy-efficient and aesthetically appealing. The city will hold an exposition, XPO, that will showcase renewable energy and clean-technology developments and research — and, officials hope, also showcase the city as a capital for such work.

"It would make Irvine, the Great Park and all of Orange County the epicenter for clean, renewable, energy-efficient technology," said Councilman Larry Agran, who compared its potential to what the International Consumer Electronic Show did for Las Vegas and what Internet start-ups did for Silicon Valley.

But according to city leaders who recently gained a majority on park's governing board, that ambition was nearly snuffed out before the event even began.

Jeffrey Lalloway, Irvine's mayor pro tem and chairman of the Great Park Board, said that the park's cash balance, which was once close to $270 million, will have shrunk to $21 million by the end of the fiscal year, with very little to show for it.

"It was absolutely on a path toward failure," Lalloway said.

The governing board — which consists entirely of members of Irvine's City Council — switched hands in January, and the new stewards say they've taken the reins from other city leaders who acted haphazardly with the park's finances and had done little to raise money to help cover the decathlon's costs. The decathlon and related events have a projected budget of about $3.7 million, according to the city.

"It took some very responsible people to take responsibility for this," Shea said. "We weren't on a successful path, and I think we are now."

But finding that path, Shea said, required slashing the park's budget. In addition to charging for the balloon ride and the carousel, programs and events have been cut, including New Year's and park anniversary bashes in 2013. The cost-cutting is expected to save more than $2 million.

Agran dismisses the notion that the Great Park was headed to insolvency. He did acknowledge that a significant sum had been spent. "But that's because we're spending the cash to build things," he said. Since 2005, the park's assets have increased to $804 million from $650 million, he added.

He lambasted those who supported the cuts as suffering from a "profound misunderstanding of what a great metropolitan park is about."

"They see it as a commercial enterprise more akin to an amusement park," Agran said. "They see it as a platform for private development and private profit. ... It's a very, very different vision."

Agran said he expects a decrease in the number of park visitors, especially those who cannot afford to take their children on the balloon or the carousel.

"The consequence," he said, "is to degrade and devalue the Great Park."

Lalloway countered that when he became chairman in January, he found the park's situation dire —and getting worse. Keeping the park afloat financially and having a successful decathlon — something that both sides agree is critical — required sacrifices, he said.

"The real choice, in my opinion, is whether to eliminate or not," Lalloway said of the amenities that will no longer be free. "We are running out of money at the Great Park. We have no other choice."

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