Shea Plans to Ground the Beloved Great Park Balloon
Under the guise of “adjusting” park and recreational fees charged to Irvine residents, Mayor Christina Shea included a provision in the City’s $200 million budget threatening to ground the popular, iconic Great Park Balloon — unless someone comes up with “private dollars” to pay for its operation and maintenance.
Since it became operational in 2007 as the first major feature of the Great Park, the giant orange balloon — a cable-tethered, helium-filled balloon — has carried more than a half million passengers 400 feet aloft to enjoy a breathtaking 360-degree view of the Great Park property, the surrounding Irvine community, and most of Orange County.
With its opening day launch — July 14, 2007 — the Great Park Balloon became not just the first major feature of the Great Park, but a beloved feature as well. The Balloon was designed and installed at a relatively modest cost — just $2 million of the initial $88 million, Phase I Great Park construction budget. The annual expenditure to operate and maintain the Balloon — less than $1 million per year — comes from a special Great Park development fund, initially seeded with $200 million levied upon developer FivePoint, and later augmented by nearly $300 million in Great Park redevelopment funds owed to the City by the State.
From the start, the Balloon was intended to be a highly visible landmark and, as one planner put it, a declaration that “Here is the Great Park — a long-term project to create a 1,300-acre great metropolitan park that will eventually rival in size and grandeur San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park.” The Balloon was to be a landmark beckoning people to see for themselves how the City of Irvine, in partnership with the entire community, was transforming the former Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro into a remarkable public asset not just for Irvine residents, but for all of Orange County and Southern California.
The Balloon project was an instant success. Ridership on the big orange Balloon quickly grew to nearly 80,000 per year, which at the time made it the most popular tethered balloon in the United States. A couple of years later, a nearby Carousel was installed, which itself quickly became one of the most popular carousels in the U.S., attracting nearly 300,000 riders per year — mostly delighted children. The small complex of newly installed features — the Balloon, the Carousel, the Kids Rock recreation area and the Visitor Center — helped boost Great Park annual attendance to nearly 1 million visitors in 2012.
From the beginning in 2007, iconic images of the Great Park Balloon were appearing everywhere: on television, in countless newspapers and other publications — including the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, Money Magazine and Sunset Magazine, and of course on the internet and in social media. The City proudly featured the Balloon in its online and print publications, and the Irvine Chamber of Commerce branded its City-funded “Destination Irvine” program with images of the Great Park Balloon.
In 2012, as the result of an election, things began to change. Former Irvine City Councilmember Christina Shea rejoined the Council, elected to a four-year term. Shea immediately set out to implement an entirely different vision for the Great Park. She wanted the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Great Park Master Plan and Design — a remarkable $30 million set of plans for the entire park, prepared by a top team of landscape architects and civil engineers — trash-canned in favor of more “developer-friendly” projects. Shea’s plans included the introduction of commercial features, most notably her pet project — a 188-acre Great Park commercial golf course that would replace the planned and designed Great Park Canyon and Lake.
Part of Shea’s “vision” and “plan” was to charge hefty fees for the use and enjoyment of existing Great Park features. She especially targeted the Great Park Balloon and Carousel — urging the kind of “market-pricing” experienced in a for-profit amusement park, even though the Great Park is, of course, a non-profit public park that is supposed to be run for the public’s benefit and enjoyment.
Whether intended or not, Shea’s “strategy” to impose large fees — up to $10 per Balloon ride and $3 for a brief Carousel ride — caused ridership on the Balloon and Carousel to plummet by more than 50 percent. Overall attendance at the Great Park plummeted too. And now — since becoming Mayor in April to fill the vacancy created when Mayor Don Wagner was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors — Shea uses lowered Balloon ridership (and revenue) as justification to threaten a permanent shutdown of the Balloon unless some private-sector “angel” shows up with money to cover the costs of operating the Balloon.
This is just plain mean-spirited, wrong-headed, and totally unnecessary. The fact of the matter is that the City of Irvine is blessed with over $100 million in reserves, and the separate multi-million-dollar Great Park fund balance, burgeoning with tens of millions of dollars, includes projected revenues of more than $200 million in Great Park redevelopment funding owed to Irvine by the State of California, and payable in annual installments over the next few years.
In writing this piece, it occurred to me that Mayor Christina Shea — Irvine’s first unelected Mayor in more than 30 years — has strange priorities, indeed. Instead of taking pride in building, operating and maintaining all of the Great Park’s features, including the Great Park Balloon, Shea portrays Irvine as a pitiful and impoverished community that can’t even keep our beloved Big Orange Balloon aloft without jacking up fees, threatening shutdowns, and supinely begging big corporations for money.
Shea’s attitude has reminded me of what Oscar Wilde, the celebrated 19th century British playwright, once wrote: “The definition of a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
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