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Jack London State Historic Park on the rebound

Park visitors picnic before a 2012 performance by Transcendence Theatre Company. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

Park visitors picnic before a 2012 performance by Transcendence Theatre Company. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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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.

Miles of trails, long languishing from budget-pressure neglect, have been restored, and the Triple Creek Horse concession is back in business at the park. About $15,000 has been spent on restorative work, said Van Wyk, and an army of volunteers has dramatically reduced management expenses while allowing a 
much needed expansion of human presence.

“When you have local management, you’re bound to have local volunteers,” Van Wyk explained, adding that some 350 people are helping with every aspect of park management.

Partnership with California State Parks has been a learning process for both partners. State Parks personnel have a natural orientation toward preserving the park’s historical and natural resources, and limiting the impact of human visitation. At the same time, park staff have little or no training or experience in marketing and promoting the parks attractions and potential revenue streams to 
the public.

On the other hand, VMNHA has a number of experienced entrepreneurs in its ranks, including Levine, a former Sprint telecommunications executive, and developing new revenue streams while marketing the park is second nature.

Tensions arose earlier this year over fears that the winery ruins where Transcendence performances are staged might be unstable and subject to seismic collapse. But further studies and a collaborative examination of the structure with experts funded by both partners, appears to have calmed concerns about the security of the site.

Levine said that both State Parks staff and VOMNHA volunteers understand the relationship is a work in progress, but he emphasized the critical nature of preserving the park’s historic assets.

“We do understand our responsibility for the natural resources and the environment of the park,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to protect and improve those resources, with the help of the state.”

Looking ahead, Van Wyk said, the third season of the Transcendence Theatre Company is being planned, and the list of activities the public can participate in at the park continues to grow.

That includes horseback tours, group and school tours, a new Jack London Book Discussion Group beginning in January, a Jack London birthday celebration, tour and wine tasting on Jan. 19, numerous nature walks, piano concerts, carriage rides, picnic lunches and weddings.

And a recent bit of additional good news came with the announcement that UC Berkeley arborists had determined that the diseased heritage oak tree shading the cottage where Jack London wrote and died, is not as ill as originally believed and will continue stand for a while, perhaps as long as a decade.

All of which calls to mind what may be Jack London’s most beloved quote:  “I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. The function of man is to live, not 
to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time!”