Editorial: California must vet various operating models for its struggling state parks

03/31/2013 12:00 AM

09/11/2013 9:41 AM

Should Hearst Castle be in the California state park system?

That was the provocative question asked by the Little Hoover Commission in a report on California's two-year window of opportunity to save its state park system.

Of course, Hearst Castle belongs in the state park system. William Randolph Hearst was a pioneering media magnate, warts and all, and his parents were significant figures in their own right – his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was the first woman regent at the University of California, and his father built a fortune during the Gold Rush. Julia Morgan, the first woman architect licensed in California, designed the estate over 28 years.

As San Luis Obispo Coast District Superintendent Nicholas Franco notes, in a culture that was East Coast-focused, Hearst's home and art collection represent an era in the building of the California dream.

Hearst's intention from the beginning was public display. "I see no reason why the ranch should not be a museum of the best things that I can secure," he said in 1927. The Hearst family donated Hearst Castle to the state in 1958 under the condition that it be "exclusively for public purposes for use as a state park and a state historical monument and museum."

Hearst Castle actually fits today's much-touted "enterprise model" – not the "free public good" model. It draws 650,000 visitors a year and takes in $11 million a year in tours, concession operations and licensing agreements. It costs $10 million a year to operate.

The extra revenue goes to fund other units in the state park system, not to Hearst Castle to cover infrastructure and art conservation costs, so deferred maintenance costs are increasing. Hearst Castle recently got $10 million in state bond funds to repair the roof and pool. But if Hearst Castle, and other park units, could keep some of their revenues, they would be able to spread more of their infrastructure costs over many years. That is worth exploring.

Hearst Castle aside, the state parks department should – as Little Hoover recommends – evaluate all state parks for their statewide significance.

Some parks were added on for political reasons and could be "realigned," as Little Hoover puts it, to the local level. A good example is Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz. That 37 acres, next to the city park at Lighthouse Point, was saved from a hotel and convention center in the 1970s. State legislators inserted $4.6 million into the 1977-78 state budget act to buy it for state parks. It should be a city park.

And, yes, the state parks department should explore alternative ways of running state park units of statewide significance.

A good example is 2,400-acre Crystal Cove State Park, which preserves one of the last remaining large natural coastal open space areas in Southern California and 46 vintage rustic coastal cottages built in the 1920s and 1930s that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Out of a battle against turning the park into a luxury resort came the Crystal Cove Alliance. After a two-year planning process, a unique operating model emerged. The Alliance is both a nonprofit cooperating association with State Parks and a concessionaire for affordable overnight rentals and food service. The contracts assure that 12.1 percent of gross revenues stay in the park for restoration and maintenance, instead of going to all state parks.

This and a number of operating models already exist in the state parks system and should be expanded.

However, not all parks can be self-sustaining break-even operations or moneymakers. Like libraries or public schools, they require public support. We must recognize, too, that large swaths of the state are experiencing tremendous population growth and have few parks of any kind, much less state parks – such as the Central Valley. We need to be acquiring lands today.

California needs a new injection of public spirit to sustain the natural landscapes and historic sites of today, and build the parks of tomorrow.

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