After five years, a unique public-private partnership is a model for success
Jack London is still dead, although some insist his ghost can be seen wandering around the Wolf House, or standing pensively in a copse of towering redwood trees nearby.
The park that bears his name, however, has never been more alive, and the moment five years ago when it was poised on the edge of closure now seems like a bad dream.
The date was May 13, 2011, when a press release went out under the imprint of then-State Parks director Ruth Coleman that 70 of the state’s 278 parks were on a list slated for closure in order to eliminate an immediate deficit of $11 million in the department’s budget—and that deficit was expected to double. “We regret closing any park,” said Coleman’s press release, “but with the proposed budget reductions over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all parks within the system.” Prominent on the closure list was Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.
The release also explained that the closure process was guided by the following criteria: “Protect the most significant natural and cultural resources; maintain public access and revenue generation to the greatest extent possible; protect closed parks so that they remain attractive and usable for potential partners.”
If the State Parks budget deficit was troublesome, the California State budget crisis was mind-boggling. The crisis spanned the Great Recession and produced projected annual deficits ranging from $11 billion to $40 billion. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered mandatory furloughs of two, and later three days per month for state employees, state offices were closed on the first and third Fridays of every month for a year-and-a-half, and at one point the state began issuing IOUs for short-term obligations it couldn’t pay. This was worse than a bad dream—this was a full-blown fiscal nightmare.
The threat of park closures became even more problematic when it was revealed that Coleman’s department had squirreled away nearly $54 million in what amounted to a secret slush fund never reported to the Department of Finance. The ensuing scandal rocked the department. Coleman quit, her second-in-command was fired and the squirrel dung hit the fan, as it were.
In the shadow of this budgetary tempest, a committed group of local park supporters refused to roll over and await the expected budget axe. Instead, they organized.
Embedded in their fervor to protect Jack London State Park was the knowledge about which Sacramento bureaucrats seemed oblivious: Jack London remains an international literary and cultural icon. People come from around the world to pay homage to the man they still consider an inspiration and a hero. Spend a summer afternoon at the House of Happy Walls visitor’s center and you will almost always hear a smattering of foreign languages—often including Russian. For these people, Jack London State Historic Park is a shrine. Would you close the Taj Mahal because of a budget crisis? No. You don’t close a shrine.
Enter the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association (VMNHA), a mouthful of words denoting a very agile and passionate group of volunteers who had for years been raising money and volunteer muscle to help maintain and repair the park, while training and coordinating its docents.
In November 2011 they submitted a proposal to State Parks to enter into a collaborative, public-private agreement to operate the park. Special legislation authored by State Assemblyman (now Congressman) Jared Huffman was passed to enable the unique agreement’s approval. It took more than six months of sometimes contentious negotiations—no one had done this before, ever, in California—but on May 1, 2012, Jack London Park Partners was born, as a special project of the VMNHA.
The park covers 1,400 acres, with 30 miles of trails, a lake, numerous historic stone buildings, a 2,000-year-old redwood tree with a 14-foot diameter, a 400-year-old oak tree under which Jack would sit and write, a museum full of priceless and irreplaceable artifacts, the imposing ruins of the Wolf House and the famous cottage where he and Charmian lived, frequently made love, and where he ultimately died. No pressure there.
And because declining budgets had bequeathed the partnership a dangerous, 30-year legacy of deferred maintenance, there was much physical labor to be done just to keep trails open and re-open those blocked by decades of brush and overgrowth.
Leading the new enterprise as executive director of JLPP was Tjiska Van Wyk, a fundraising professional with no experience whatsoever running a park. “It was a horribly steep learning curve,” Van Wyk says. “There were so many things that screamed, ‘Take care of me and the people will come.’ One of the things we did early on that helped make for a successful model was that we got it that if we weren’t perceived as valuable and relevant to the community, that this park would probably remain off the radar like it was in the past. So we invested in someone to get the park, and what was happening here, in the press regularly to raise awareness. But we also went out to a wide range of stakeholders in the community—nonprofits, schools, community groups—and we asked, ‘What are the gaps in services and needs in the community, and what can we do as a park to meet those needs?’”
The JLPP board of directors quickly identified three essential ingredients for success, says Van Wyk. “Environmental education, creating meaningful connections with nature … Holding community events out here. You come out, you have a great time, you meet new friends … And you have to promote Jack London and his legacy.”
But one of the most important ingredients in the park’s success was the built-in wisdom they baked into the board. “We deliberately put together a board based on a matrix of skills, talents and expertise we thought would be important for managing a model park. There are 14 people on this board who are incredible visionary, talented people who contribute to a business model.”
With those skills in place, says Van Wyk, the board decided, “Let’s figure out how we can cover 50 percent of our budget expenses with earned income that we generate here.” And they did. “We just came up with a lot of really cool strategies to generate the money. We probably raised close to half a million dollars in earned income fees—park fees. For instance, we put somebody in the kiosk. Some of this sounds so obvious, staffing that entry kiosk with a friendly volunteer who says, ‘Welcome, we’re glad you’re here. It’ll be $10, and this is what your $10 is going to support.’ Oftentimes they hand you a $20 and say keep the change.”
“The state has never had to be particularly concerned with marketing its resources,” he says, “but once you take on something like Jack London State Historic Park, you have an opportunity to do effective marketing. And you have the necessity to do effective marketing, because the only way to be successful is to draw more and more people to the park.”
Levine says the record at JLPP proves the point. “We’re spending significantly more than twice what the state used to spend on the park, and the state was having trouble breaking even. We’re able to spend more than twice as much, and yet we broke even for four consecutive years.”
That record, he adds, reflects “the commitment of the community,” which he defines in the broadest terms. “Jack London has the support of people around the world, and the park brings Jack London aficionados bay-wide, statewide, nationwide and worldwide. We have a base of people from all over the world who grow up reading Jack London, and it was an inspiration to them. I regularly meet visitors from Russia, from Eastern Europe, from Western Europe, from Australia, from Japan, from China as well as the U.S., all of whom have read Jack London, and in many cases they’ve read far more Jack London than a lot of Americans.”
A mandatory stop on most London pilgrimages is the Wolf House, which veteran docent Jeff Falconer says pretty much sums up London’s life.
“The audacity of the scope of the project,” Falconer says, “the fact that this guy was poorly educated, had to quit school to go to work, the fact that he would haul off and become the writer that he was, and then build a project like this that was a symbol of his success, and then have it burn. It’s just emblematic of the whole Jack London story, which is striving, hunger, work, success, failure, triumph, tragedy, joy, heartbreak, the whole deal, right? That’s Jack London in a nutshell.”
Falconer, who spent his childhood in Glen Ellen, roaming the Beauty Ranch unfettered, jamming with his high school band among the ruins, has a near visceral understanding of the author. “It’s like his entire life is itself a novel. The greatest story he wrote was the one he lived, and that story is true.”
And maybe that’s why people come from around the world to visit this park. In the end, if you love Jack London, it’s not enough to read him. You have to see him. And you can see him today, a ghost among the ruins, because of the novel success of Jack London Park Partners, a unique alliance that is keeping London alive.