One day at a time
Chico Creek Nature Center faces uncertain future as executive director quits
“Bidwell Park is to Chico what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona, the Rocky Mountains to Colorado, Yellowstone to Wyoming, and Mount Rushmore to South Dakota.”
That’s how Tom Gascoyne described Bidwell Park’s importance in the scheme of things back in May 2005 in an enthusiastic piece he wrote for this newspaper about the then-upcoming expansion of the Chico Creek Nature Center (CCNC).
The CCNC opened its impressive new interpretive center in March 2010. It’s the “gateway and official information center for Bidwell Park,” according to the CCNC website (www.bidwellpark.org), so it would be more than a shame if the CCNC were to close its doors.
The resignation of the center’s longtime executive director has raised questions about the CCNC’s prospects for both the short and long haul, especially against the backdrop of the looming 2012 closure of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, another Chico landmark. Tom Haithcock announced his departure earlier this month in a carefully worded press release that described the “ongoing strain of increased responsibility as we [the CCNC] adapt to evolving budgetary conditions.”
Haithcock is leaving his post of eight years on Sept. 23, and his replacement has yet to be found.
“The state of CCNC affairs is really what it has always been, a struggle to meet increasing costs of operating with … diminishing support from our primary partner, the city of Chico,” Haithcock said recently by email. City funding of the CCNC for this fiscal year is $46,116, “down from $62,000 four or five years back.”
Haithcock traced the CCNC’s struggles back to when its expansion was still in the planning stages.
“One of the major difficulties we encountered began when we were allocated [$200,000 in] Prop. 40 money to build what was then a reasonably priced new facility,” said Haithcock. The CCNC, he continued, set out to raise the additional money needed through private donations via a capital campaign.
“The costs of construction skyrocketed … and so did the cost of the facility,” he said. After an aggressive fundraising campaign, plus a construction loan from the city of Chico in the amount of $185,000, the CCNC raised the $900,000-plus needed to complete the expansion.
Haithcock pointed out that the capital campaign did not provide funding for the center’s day-to-day operations and that the loan from the city is “for a building that belongs to [the city].”
The CCNC made four quarterly payments on the loan starting in July 2008, before coming to the City Council for a two-year deferment, followed by another one-year deferment, which was approved in May 2011.
Payments will come due again next July.
“The payments were deferred, but will be added to the tail end of the loan schedule,” said Cris Carroll, city community-development manager, in a recent phone interview.
Carroll said she and the city’s management analyst, Debbie Collins, will be meeting soon with CCNC board President Kris Zappettini to review its contractual relationships with the city.
“Once we heard that Tom left, we extended the offer, and she has agreed to take the meeting. … Our expectation, based on the last council action in May of approving another year of deferred payments, is that the Nature Center will resume payments on the loan beginning in July 2012, and will continue to provide services for the operation of a museum and interpretive center in Bidwell Park.”
Chico City Councilman Andy Holcombe would like the city to forgive the $185,000 loan.
“[The CNCC has] to make payments on a loan for a building which effectively the city owns already,” he said. “So, from my point of view, we should cancel the loan obligation completely.”
The problem, said Holcombe, is that the money the city would need to “pay back” the loan to itself would have to come from the city’s general fund, “which pays for operational expenses—police, fire, fixing potholes, running the city—and we don’t have any extra.
“Between the state raids on our budget, personnel costs and so on, we don’t presently have any leeway in our general fund. Even if people conceptually agreed that the Nature Center wouldn’t have to pay for the privilege of building a building for the city and running it, it would be a laudable goal, but it may have to wait a few years.”
Besides forgiving the loan, Holcombe said he’d like to see the city help the CCNC by taking over its maintenance: “The city knows how to maintain a building, how to mow lawns, keep the infrastructure good. It seems the city could easily incorporate maintaining the building with minimal increase in its operating budget—it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
As for any increase in city funding for the CCNC in the near future, Holcombe said that over the next two or three years “the city budget is unlikely to expand in terms of giving funding to nonprofit groups when our funding is contracting for general services. The last two or three cycles of nonprofit funding have been reduced, and there are more people wanting a piece of the pie, too.”
Haithcock noted that donors to the center have tripled over the past few years, and the CCNC “will look to them in the future for help with the actual running of the center’s operations.”
Board and staff are now engaged in a fall fundraising campaign as they cycle into its slower program season.
“It’s a good time of year for a transition to take place without a major interruption of services,” Haithcock said. “But, like many nonprofits these days, we take it one day at a time.”