At the bottom of the fiscal trough that was California’s budget crisis, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen was one of some 70 state parks slated for indefinite closure.
California State Parks was out of money, faced a $22 million deficit and more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance.
The future for Jack London, along with Annadel and Sugarloaf State Parks, was grim and cast a gloomy pall over the fabled Valley of the Moon. Jack London, alone, had an annual operating deficit of $163,000 and neither the park, nor the massive state bureaucracy behind it, had the budget or the expertise to mount the kind of marketing and promotional initiative that could draw more visitors to the home and the grave of, arguably, America’s most famous writer.
But, with only a brief operational interruption in the winter of 2011, that closure never occurred. Instead, a unique, precedent-setting public-private partnership was engineered following the passage of enabling legislation authored by then-Assemblymember Jared Huffman.
Hope for the park was partially ignited in October 2011 by a stunning musical concert produced in the park’s old winery ruins by the newly-formed Transcendence Theatre Company, composed of professional Broadway and Hollywood performers. The concert drew a wildly enthusiastic audience estimated at 900 and raised thousands of dollars for the park while demonstrating the viability of a venue capable of attracting thousands of new visitors.
At the end of that concert, Transcendence artistic director and founding member Amy Miller generated a barrage of applause with her announcement that the theater company was planning a move to Sonoma and intended to perform a permanent summer season of musicals in the park if agreement could be reached with the state.
Meanwhile, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association (VMNHA) was completing a first-of-its-kind plan to take over daily management of the park facility with an agreement calling for the park to be operated a minimum of 36 hours a week with VMNHA responsible for daily maintenance, visitor services, volunteer staffing, protection of natural and historic resources and interpretation.
That agreement was approved in the spring of 2012 and this winter, after 18 months and two seasons of operation, the results appear to have exceeded almost everyone’s expectations.
Park attendance is up 77 percent and final revenue figures for 2013 were expected to reach break-even – or possibly show a small surplus – according to Chuck Levine, a member of the VMNHA board of directors.
Park survey data reveal that during those 18 months, some 50,000 to 60,000 visitors came to Jack London State Historic Park who had never been there before.
Close to 20,000 people, over two seasons, came to see the Transcendence Theatre Company performances (11,000 in 2012), which sold out virtually every show and produced donations of more than $60,000 for the park.
Park income for 2013, from both earned and contributed revenue streams, is expected to approach $500,000, with the year’s attendance total close to 70,000 visitors, 86 percent of whom ranked their overall experience as “excellent” in a visitor survey. Of particular interest in the survey results, said Tjiska Van Wyk, VMNHA executive director, is the response that 50 percent of surveyed visitors reported Jack London State Historic Park was their reason for visiting Sonoma Valley.