Nonprofits hope to save Jack London
STEPHAN STUBBINS and Amy Miller were two of the stage and screen actors who donated their time to put on "Broadway Under the Stars" at Jack London State Historic Park Saturday.
Editors note: This is the second in a two-part series examining efforts to preserve public access at Jack London State Historic Park. See part one here.
Board members at the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association are spending more than 40 hours a week planning how they would run a state park, specifically Jack London State Historic Park. It's a fulltime job with no paycheck other than the possibility of a huge reward for residents of the Sonoma Valley through continued public access at the park.
Although the board has no official agreement with the State Department of Parks and Recreation, the body that oversees the parks, they hope to soon. And when that time comes, they want to be prepared to show that a nonprofit can successfully run the park. Elisa Stancil, vice president of the board, said they are working on "a winning plan to help save the parks."
This spring, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed, and the state legislature approved, a $22 million reduction in the Department of Parks and Recreation's budget over the next two years. In response, the department announced it would close 70 of the 278 state parks it can no longer afford to operate, including Jack London State Historic Park, Annadel State Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma Valley.
Under current law, the Department of Parks and Recreation is legally allowed to contract with a city, county or district to care for or operate a state park. However many cities and counties are struggling just like the Department of Parks and Recreation, and cannot afford to take on staffing, maintaining and operating a park. Assemblymember Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, introduced AB 42 last December in an effort to keep more state parks open. The legislation would alter the existing law to allow a "qualified nonprofit organization" to operate a park, in addition to municipal public agencies. The bill sailed through the Assembly and Senate and is currently sitting on Brown's desk waiting for approval by this Sunday, Oct. 9, the deadline for the governor to make a decision.
"We have not heard anything at this point, but Oct. 9 is still the deadline," said Dan Okenfuss, spokesman for Huffman's office. "We keep refreshing the governor's website every hour but haven't seen it come up yet."
The bill has garnered wide support, receiving the approval of the California State Park Foundation, the Trust for Public Land and the Audubon Society of California. The Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which has been aiding the state parks for 34 years with docents and financial assistance, not only supports the bill, they want to play a part in it.
"We expect to have our proposal submitted to the state within the next month (to run the park)," Stancil said. "We're asking them to sign it by Jan. 1, of course we have no idea if they'll actually do that."
The association is consulting with other area organizations, such as the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma County Regional Parks and the Sonoma Ecology Center, to develop a workable way to keep the parks open for public use. They intend to begin with Jack London, and eventually include Annadel and Sugarloaf Ridge under their operations umbrella.
"Our state parks have been on a shoestring budget with a skeleton staff for years. It's time for a change," Stancil said. "We've supported those parks with volunteers and we plan to continue doing that, but instead of state park volunteers, they'd be our volunteers."
She said the group has developed a business plan that will have the park back in the black within three years. It hinges on bringing commercial events, specifically weddings, photo shoots and the like, to the park on a semi-regular basis, but in a way that would not interrupt the ecology of the area.
"There's a lot of people who would like to utilize the park but it is so difficult currently," Stancil said, referring to the red tape that exists in accessing the park for private events. "But the demand is there."
Stancil said the organization would also continue to throw events for the public to raise funds, such as the popular Broadway Under the Starts event last Saturday (see the accompanying story at right for more details). Despite the absence of an agreement with the state, the association is already planning its next event, a piano recital on Saturday, Oct. 29. During the fundraiser, the 10 players who regularly perform in the House of Happy Walls at the park will pick their favorite piece to play on the 110-year-old Steinway piano that belonged to Jack London's wife, Charmian Kittredge.
Stancil said the association is confident their business plan will cover the cost to operate and staff the park. The one major unknown is the total cost of deferred maintenance that will need to be addressed at the park. Estimates say the deferred maintenance at all of the state parks, combined, tops $1 billion after years of neglect due to budgetary constraints. Stancil said the association plans to create a stewardship fund, finding donors for specific projects related to the deferred maintenance. However they don't want to begin collecting money for that fund quite yet.
"We don't want to take in money until we have an agreement with the state," Stancil said, adding that she's eager for an answer from the governor this week.
The organization is collecting donations to support operations at the part, outside of the deferred maintenance, which can be made online at www.savejacklondon.com.