Politics & Government

Doug Ose’s county park project a work in progress

When budget constraints forced the closure of Gibson Ranch Park in Sacramento County four years ago, Doug Ose, a land developer long back from a stint in Congress, applied to run the facility as a private operator.

The issue, he said at the time, was that the park needed to generate more money to help pay for itself. “If you strip down to the basics of the problems at Gibson Ranch, we don’t have enough revenues,” Ose said.

Since Ose took over in April 2011, the regional park has been open daily, welcomed about 250,000 visitors and served as the backdrop for scores of birthdays, weddings, family reunions and a popular Civil War re-enactment.

Now seeking to replace Democratic Rep. Ami Bera and return to Congress, Ose regularly trumpets the experience when ticking through his qualifications for office. The public-private partnership is prominently featured on his campaign website. Earlier this year, he told college students at UC Davis, that “not a single dime” of taxpayer money has gone toward operating the roughly 325-acre ranch in Elverta.

Ose, however, has yet to break even on the investment, despite his stated intention to make money on the deal. His efforts have drawn mixed reviews and raised questions about whether the model could be replicated.

He told a lunch group of fellow Rotarians in the primary campaign that the story of the park is “proof positive that more and bigger government is not the answer to all of our challenges.” Ose has a team in place to oversee the park, and said it would be run to his standards should he be elected.

“And, hopefully,” he added, “it will soon be profitable.”

Gibson Ranch collects revenue from a $5 vehicle entry fee, concessions and horse boarding. It offers horseback riding, fishing, camping, concerts and playing surfaces for athletic leagues. In 2013, annual revenue totaled $385,311, but expenses were $451,331, leaving it with a loss of $66,020, according to county records. Between 2011 and 2013, the cumulative net loss stood at $151,638.

Bill Davis, a member of the Save the American River Association, said he began monitoring Gibson Ranch because of its potential impact on the American River Parkway. Davis said he suspects making the ranch self-sustaining would be a challenge.

“Parks just don’t make money unless you get a lot of activities that people would buy tickets to,” Davis said. “But the more events, the further you get away from the historical and real purpose of the park.”

Ose declined requests for an interview on the subject and issued a two-sentence statement via email: “The park is open. Please feel free to stop by.”

Ose, a Republican who served three terms in Congress until 2005, faced persistent criticism after approaching the county to run the facility. Some didn’t like the idea of the ranch being operated by a private, for-profit outfit. Under the 10-year lease, Ose is to pay a base rent of $1 annually, plus a cut for the county should it become profitable.

“What I really was opposed to was having Gibson Ranch privatized and the public having no recourse,” said Charlea R. Moore, who used to serve on a commission with oversight of the ranch.

The critiques continued. A former ranch manager accused the new operator of using contaminated materials and keeping the park in disrepair. Some asserted Ose violated portions of the lease. Others took issue with his proposed revenue-generating activities, from a pet motel to a Christmas tree farm, which they said threatened the ranch’s character.

Moore acknowledged many planned activities she opposed never materialized, and that she is glad the park is open. She insists, however, that shouldn’t be the standard.

“Gibson Ranch was a pastoral setting with cattle and horses and green pastures, and now it’s not,” she said.

Bobbie Gliddon was among Ose’s most loyal supporters during his months-long bid for the park. Part of a mostly volunteer team that called itself the “Ose Pitbulls,” they attended meetings, helped draft speeches and wrote supportive letters to local newspapers.

Gliddon said the advocacy came naturally to her. She spent much of her life visiting the ranch. As as kid, she rode her bicycle; then later, a motorcycle.

“I went nose to nose with animals there. My first kiss was there. I took my children there,” she said. “Gibson was my heart and soul. That was my world.”

After Ose assumed control, the pitbulls became a pack of one, Gliddon said, as Ose dismissed volunteers’ offers of assistance. She said pastures were allowed to brown, and the pond was never properly filled. Lack of care has contributed to the park’s continued financial issues, she said.

“He is using it as a heartfelt story. But when you look at the paperwork, it doesn’t lie,” she said. “I feel like I let the community down by fighting to get it open.”

Last summer, the county Environmental Management Department issued a notification to Gibson Ranch Park 2011 LLC for failing to pay a hazardous- materials permit fee of $507. As of Wednesday, the total due had increased to $1,015. Ose’s campaign said he paid the original fee on Thursday and that the ranch is no longer subject to any fines.

Ose has brushed aside most of the criticism on the campaign trail and in previous published reports.

He has strongly denied using contaminated materials and said the ranch was in terrible condition when he started there in April 2011. Some of that could be attributed to the park’s closure during the winter. The lease requires the county to pay $500,000 over five years for deferred maintenance. It stated that the cost was less than half of the annual payments the county was making to “mothball” Gibson Ranch.

In his original proposal, Ose did not anticipate having annual net operating income until the fifth year. But he projected that his cumulative operating loss that year would still exceed $382,000. The cumulative loss wouldn’t disappear until the 13th year, under Ose’s plan from September 2010.

Ose’s supporters have taken aim at critics for having no viable plan of their own to keep the park open, clean and in safe condition. They believe the partnership has been successful “because (the park) is open,” as county Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said in an interview earlier this year.

Until he began campaigning in earnest, Ose could be found at the ranch in jeans and a flannel shirt doing manual labor, MacGlashan said. A county Web page for the facility says picnic sites are available daily, on a first-come, first-served basis, and also by reservation: “Contact Doug at 916-806-3868 for reservations.”

“He wasn’t just a figurehead. He was actually out there,” she said. This has “not been a profitable venture for him, but it’s been very good for the county.”

Supervisor Susan Peters said Ose met regularly with the people who use the ranch and has done a good job of incorporating their input.

“He worked to smooth over the relationship with many of the residents, and we don’t get any complaints,” Peters said.

“I think he thought of it almost as a community service,” the supervisor added. “He lives on a small ranch and thought he could put those skills to use. I think he’s that way. … He grew up in the area and when you’ve grown up in an area you know what residents want.”

Parks officials expressed general satisfaction with the operator.

Bob Bastian, a member of the county’s parks commission, said the brown fields and low lake level are a result of the drought, not mismanagement. Bastian said Ose has been a cautious steward of the park and only requests county reimbursements when needed.

“Doug is very conservative and watches his dollars,” he said.

County Regional Parks Director Jeff Leatherman said the facility is maintained and people are going to events, such as a 5K mud run and the annual Civil War Experience Day. Gibson Ranch’s website lists a recent corn toss tournament and advertises the park for everything from bridal showers to corporate events.

“From that side, it’s very exciting that it is open,” Leatherman said.

He said the partnership has given the county the opportunity to look more deeply at where it can assist its operators and “where is it better for our operators to step in and do some things for the property that we don’t have the expertise.”

“It’s been a learning experience. We tried some things out there that have worked well and some things that we just won’t do again,” he said. “As I look at the industry of recreation and the regional park system, we are always out looking for ways to do our jobs more efficiently and more effectively.”

In an appearance in March, Ose was asked whether the partnership could be reproduced by other municipalities with budgetary struggles.

He noted that plenty of parks have fallen on hard times, and said he was approached by city of Sacramento officials to run Harry Renfree Field. The diamond there once served as a training ground for baseball legends like Dusty Baker, Larry Bowa and Jerry Manuel.

“When you look at a park, it’s a piece of land,” Ose said at the event. “It’s all about this is how much it’s going to cost to operate that park. Can you generate revenue that exceeds that? That’s the question. Can you create the revenue streams that allow you to pay all the bills?”