Under new management: China Camp volunteers take the helm

August 10, 2012

After six months of fundraising, the nonprofit Friends of China Camp raised $250,000, enough money to take over operations of the cultural and historical landmark along the northwest shores of the San Francisco Bay.

Just one day after assuming the state’s responsibilities, the news broke that the California Department of Parks and Recreation had stashed away $54 million for 12 years at a time when state parks have suffered from severe budget cuts. China Camp State Park was among 70 parks statewide threatened with closure by July 1, 2012.

“We were shocked. We had worked so hard, not just us, but the whole community,” said Steve Deering, a Friends of China Camp leader.

Despite these developments, Friends of China Camp volunteers are pressing on and believe that they can be part of the solution to create a better park system, one built on higher standards of accountability and transparency.

“Those funds would make our lives easier if we don’t have to have bake sales every year to make money,” said Deering. “But (State Parks) is not out of the woods with the $54 million and it’s up to the legislature to make a decision on the use of the funds.”

Some other groups managing state parks –notably in Napa – are having a similar reaction. Tony Norris, board president of the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District wrote a letter to the editor of the Napa Valley Register affirming that taking over two Napa state parks was not a wasted effort. The state parks scandal reinforces the importance of keeping locals involved, he said.

“As a local public agency, with a directly elected board and many ties to the community, we are accountable for every dollar we raise and expend. Our books are open and transparent and stand completely separate from state accounting,” wrote Tony Norris on August 2.

Before grabbing the reins to operate the park, Friends of China Camp focused on visitor education. The group’s volunteers greeted visitors into one of the most pristine wetlands left in the San Francisco Bay estuary and helped protect the historic Chinese fishing village and museum.

Pressed by the park’s threatened closure, the grassroots group swelled within a year from 25 to 1,400 members and donors.

The cafe at China Camp State Park joins the advocacy. (c) Glenn Brank 2011

They raised $250,000 in six months by mobilizing new community partnerships and philanthropic support from over 20 organizations including the Bay Area Sea Kayakers, Marin Chinese Cultural Association, Marin Conservation League, WildCare, Marin Community Foundation and the California State Parks Foundation.

“We reinvented ourselves,” Deering said. “We are not especially skilled at fundraising, but the park is so cherished. It was encouraging to see the outpouring of support.”

As a 30-year-old committee of the nonprofit Marin State Parks Association, the group applied to operate the park as a nonprofit. The new park operator plans to double revenue from day use to more than $60,000 annually by essentially making it easier for people to pay entrance fees. Pay stations will now take credit and debit cards for day fees or annual passes. New group campsites are expected to bring in more people and more funds as well. The group also plans to sell permits for special events.

But user fees are expected to only fund roughly half the park’s $500,000 to $600,000 annual budget. Fundraising will be an ongoing activity to raise the remaining operating funds, as much as $300,000 a year. The money will go towards one full-time dedicated California State Parks ranger, one full-time maintenance worker, two seasonal maintenance workers and two seasonal park aides.

“We still have a long way to go to make sure the budget is solid,” said Deering. “We encourage people to support our fundraising efforts, use the facilities, and volunteer.” Friends of China Camp will operate the park for three years, and after that the contract is subject to annual renewal with the state until 2017.

On Saturday, August 11, Friends of China Camp is hosting Heritage Day, an annual cultural celebration that will be held for the first time under new management.

About the Author

Christine Sculati is a Bay Nature contributor and writes about state park closures and nature on her blog,