State of the mansion

Supporters look to keep Bidwell Mansion doors open

Bidwell Mansion Community Project President Nancy Overton (right) presents a check for $10,000 to State Parks Superintendent Denise Rist.

Bidwell Mansion Community Project President Nancy Overton (right) presents a check for $10,000 to State Parks Superintendent Denise Rist.

Photo By Ken SMith

Had the Bidwell Mansion Community Project failed in its initial goal to raise more than $100,000 to keep the historic home open to the public, July 1 could have marked the one-year anniversary of the state historic park’s closure. A year later, the group remains focused on the mansion’s future.

The BMCP held a public meeting June 26 to bring concerned citizens up to date on its ongoing efforts and the effects of some major events involving the California Department of Parks and Recreation that occurred in the past year, including last July’s discovery of $54 million in surplus funds, as well as recent legislation concerning state parks.

Prior to the meeting, the BMCP had already handed over $40,000 of community-raised funds (which totaled more than $140,000) to the Parks Department, and that night handed over another $10,000 check earmarked for developing new forms of revenue for the mansion. BMCP treasurer Debra Lucero said the organization still has about $96,000, which eventually will go to the group’s stated cause of keeping the mansion open. All of the $50,000 donated to date will be matched by the Parks Department because of legislation passed late last year.

The surplus scandal—the state agency was sitting on the $54 million while simultaneously pushing for community organizations’ raising of funds to halt the closure of 70 of California’s 279 state parks—led to Assembly Bill 1478. The bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last September, allocated $20.5 million of the discovered funds back toward the Parks Department, with $10 million of that dedicated to matching money raised by community organizations. Spurred by the threatened closures, groups throughout the state have raised more than $7 million to date, Lucero reported.

AB 1478 also strengthened the budget-oversight abilities of the State Park and Recreation Commission—a group of nine governor-appointed members that helps the director of Parks Department establish general policies—and funded internal and external investigations into the surplus situation. Additionally, it guarantees all of the parks will remain open until mid-2014.

Though it’s been granted a two-year reprieve from threatened closure, the mansion’s long-term future is still a concern.

“Sustainability is our code word,” said Lucy Sperling, a member of the BMCP’s board of directors, comparing the mansion to a non-renewable resource in need of ongoing protection.

BMCP board member Susan Hearne outlined some ways the latest $10,000 donation—which will equal $20,000 with matching state funds—can be used to generate revenue, including the construction and maintenance of a better website, and capital for fundraising projects. Hearne also suggested the mansion be more readily accessible for private functions, as well as special cultural and historical events.

Hearne recommended Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park use the funds to pay a liaison to actively seek support from other community organizations and to look at establishing an internship program with Chico State University.

BMCP’s long-term goal is to establish a unique private-public partnership with the state of California for stewardship of the mansion similar to that of the Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen, Lucero said. Last summer it became the first state park to be completely run by a nonprofit organization, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association. She said this move has had a number of positive effects on that park, including tripling the amount of volunteers signing on to work there.

“What Jack London [SHP] found is that, when the state stepped away, tree trimmers came and volunteered their services, roofers came and put on a roof, and people began to volunteer and take ownership,” Lucero said. “We have the good fortune of State Parks taking care of everything, but that’s not sustainable.”

Lucero also mentioned the Old City Hall Arts Center in Redding, noting that, though not a state park, it has a unique relationship with that city. It is run by the Shasta County Arts Council, with the city committing to pay them $16,000 and provide services equaling another $40,000 annually.

Lucero said the partnership plan is still in its infancy, and that BMCP has no desire to see the mansion completely privatized, or to exclude other organizations like the Bidwell Mansion Association, which runs the gift shop and has helped steward the mansion for decades.

“Some people are afraid of privatization, but that’s not what this is about,” she said. “It’s about keeping an asset that belongs to the state open to the public.”

Lucero noted the state would have to cover the cost of insuring the building and its collection of artifacts to make the plan feasible, but beyond that, the BMCP could cover the lion’s share of the estimated $200,000 a year it costs to keep the mansion open at its current level of service. She said the plan would require legislation, and the BMCP will be appealing to local representatives in the near future.