Tuesday, June 19 , 2018, 7:53 pm | Fair 64º

 
 
 
 

User Fees a Critical Revenue Source for Keeping Elings Park Diverse and Accessible

230-acre recreation area on city-owned land in Santa Barbara is privately run and operates under a nonprofit funding model that includes no government support

Brothers Adam, left, and Aaron Webster warm up between lessons on the Las Positas tennis courts at Elings Park in Santa Barbara. The brothers, graduates of Santa Barbara High School, both went on to have professional tennis careers and have decided to return to the area to give back to the local tennis community. Click to view larger
Brothers Adam, left, and Aaron Webster warm up between lessons on the Las Positas tennis courts at Elings Park in Santa Barbara. The brothers, graduates of Santa Barbara High School, both went on to have professional tennis careers and have decided to return to the area to give back to the local tennis community. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation. Click here for the first story.]

At any hour of any given day, people can be found launching from, picnicking in and walking dogs around Santa Barbara’s most diverse recreational facility. Elings Park is home to thriving rugby, soccer, lacrosse and softball communities, with room for hikers, cyclists and nature enthusiasts.

While the largest privately funded park in the nation maintains 230 acres of prime Santa Barbara real estate and provides recreational outlets for hundreds of thousands of park visitors each year, perhaps its greatest challenge is educating the public about its funding model.

“It’s a pain to have to pay for parking or to walk your dog,” said Mike Nelson, executive director of the Elings Park Foundation. “It’s contentious. We get that, but it’s also a critical source of revenue.

“The park exists because of contributions like yours. Would you rather have a landfill or pay $10 a month for a place to walk your dog?”

Although established on city-owned land, the park is operated and maintained by the foundation, a nonprofit charged with the task.

“The city’s decision to reclaim the landfill into a recreation area was predicated on the existence of a nonprofit to manage and raise the funds for it,” Nelson said. “While the property is owned by the city, they lease it to us for management and recreation.”

The partnership creates some confusion with potential visitors turned off by weekend parking fees as well as fee-based membership for privileges such as walking dogs in the only off-leash park in Santa Barbara County or playing tennis on the maintained courts.

“The public doesn’t understand that the park isn’t there to make money,” said Ken Jacobsen, president of Santa Barbara Rugby Association. “People don’t get what it takes to run something like this.”

Clyde Bennett, a fixture at the softball fields at Elings Park, oversees 900 softball players, 75 teams and three diamonds. He runs the softball league as well as coordinates tournaments and summer programs.
Clyde Bennett, a fixture at the softball fields at Elings Park, oversees 900 softball players, 75 teams and three diamonds. He runs the softball league as well as coordinates tournaments and summer programs. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

Since its inception in 1965, Elings Park has grown from a 97-acre landfill to a 230-acre recreational open space that serves 250,000 visitors each year.

“Elings has always been principally an athletic park with venues driven by recreation programs — softball, soccer, rugby, tennis courts — but it’s also become this significant landscape with Hendry’s Beach parcel, the Douglas Family Preserve and now Veronica Meadows all right there as well,” Nelson explained.

It provides shelter, picnic grounds, event venues, restrooms and athletic facilities.

It provides staff members like septuagenarian umpire, player and organizational whiz kid Clyde Bennett, who juggles 900 softball players, 75 teams and three diamonds to run the park’s successful softball league while coordinating tournaments and summer ball programs.

“The park involves young people, old people, athletes and nonathletes, a no-leash dog park, every sport is available, plus open spaces, views, fresh air, soccer, softball, bikes, electric remote-control cars, tennis,” longtime board member Marcia Constance said. “You name it, it’s there.”

All of that comes at a cost.

While city and county parks are funded largely through taxes, Elings Park operates with no government funding.

“We are an organization that funds ourselves 75 percent on user fees, 25 percent on grants and donations, so we’re constantly keeping an eye on the bottom line as well as making certain everyone has a great time,” Nelson said.

With a property that offers sweeping views across the Santa Barbara Channel or inland across the Santa Ynez Mountains, it’s no surprise that one big economic engine is facility rentals for weddings, memorial services, baptisms and festivals. Use fees for the park’s athletic fields, including three baseball/softball diamonds and two athletic fields, contribute to the budget as well.

“We aren’t just paying a rental fee and using the fields,” Jacobsen said. “We see our role at the park more as owner-users. Rental fees don’t cover the cost of running a park. It takes a lot of volunteer hours to build and maintain facilities like this.”Jacobsen said.

Shawn Noormand warms up with his coed teammates before a championship softball game at Elings Park.
Shawn Noormand warms up with his coed teammates before a championship softball game at Elings Park. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

In addition to renting fields, the Santa Barbara Rugby Association’s members have donated time, expertise and brute strength to help with special projects, from brush clearing to grandstand building to running the annual Santa Barbara Beer Festival that raises about $5,000 for the Elings Park Foundation.

“It’s not just a rental contract,” Jacobsen said. “If Mike (Nelson) needs help, he calls me and seeks out that help.”

Elings Park also maintains working partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, including the Santa Barbara Lacrosse Association and the Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers.

“It’s so cool, I think, when nonprofits get together to do community activities, to set up facilities that youth can play on,” Jacobsen said. “It takes the passion of a few people who set things up and get things going.

“Elings is a perfect example of that. The park does a good job of fostering that idea.”

Jacobsen said he believes those partnerships result in better facilities than municipalities are able to offer.

“If you compare Elings facilities to that which the city owns and maintains, it’s night and day,” he said of the City of Santa Barbara.

The city’s highly contentious decision to hand the Las Positas tennis courts over to Elings Park is a prime example.

“The city has struggled to run them,” said Jacobsen, who has played tennis on the Las Positas courts for years. “f something breaks, like the showers, they shut them down. The courts were falling part. Elings comes in and it’s cleaned, fixed, taken care of.”

While court users have complained about the new fee structure, park supporters point out the fees that maintain the facility are a far cry from the fees paid to local private clubs with tennis facilities.

“We gladly pay our share because we know what it takes to run it,” Jacobsen said. “Go to the city courts in town and see what happens when you don’t pay enough to take care of them.

“The park takes it on; they don’t say no.”

Click here for more information about Elings Park. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Elings Park is a dog-friendly environment that allows canine owners to let their pets play off leash. The park is one of only a few places in Santa Barbara that allow dogs to run free and socialize with other dogs. Click to view larger
Elings Park is a dog-friendly environment that allows canine owners to let their pets play off leash. The park is one of only a few places in Santa Barbara that allow dogs to run free and socialize with other dogs. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

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