Is Great Park Risking a Blunder With Solar Decathlon Event?


This year's Solar Decathlon, a collegiate competition that could attract more than 300,000 visitors, will be held at the Great Park. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

The Orange County Great Park Board, now composed essentially of the Irvine City Council, is set to receive an update Tuesday afternoon on planning efforts for the 2013 Solar Decathlon, a green energy collegiate competition that could attract some 300,000 visitors.

But only with a great marketing campaign.

That’s exactly what critics of the new Republican council majority that axed a controversial public relations contract with Newport Beach-based Forde & Mollrich say is at risk without the expensive consultant. The firm was was receiving $100,000 per month until it was cut to $50,000 and then terminated altogether earlier this month.

“I don’t see how you can pull this off” without Forde & Mollrich, Democratic Councilman Larry Agran, the park’s former longtime power broker, said at the last park board meeting. “We’re in the middle of brain surgery.”

Last year, the park won a $1-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to hold the Solar Decathlon.

And according to Fred Smoller, the Chapman University professor who formed the idea to bring the event to Irvine, Forde & Mollrich was a key player in creating what he was told was the “gold standard” proposal to have the event at the park.

According to its website, the biennial competition challenges universities to “design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.”

Smoller, who also serves on the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board, said that the event has the potential to “help re-engineer the economic DNA of Orange County” over 10 to 20 years by developing a green energy industry and academic culture with Irvine as its capital.

Smoller says he understands and doesn’t necessarily disagree with the criticism that a public relations firm with close ties to Agran was paid millions of dollars to publicize a park that didn’t yet exist.

Instead, city officials focused on what they call “activating” the park by having big and exotic events, like Cirque Du Soleil. Mayor Steven Choi has argued that the city should be in the “park building business” not the “entertainment business.”

But the irony of what critics called a backwards approach is that with a strong publicity wing and previous experience with large events, the city was primed to hold and promote the Solar Decathlon, Smoller said. Smoller himself contracted with the park last summer to set up community meetings with university officials, arrange fundraising for the event and measure the event's economic impacts.

Along with the runway, park infrastructure, the sunny location and myriad other factors, public relations was a key ingredient in beating high-profile cities like Chicago, San Diego and Las Vegas, Smoller said.

“If you want to bring 300,000 people here, you got to have some real muscle and strategic thinking,” Smoller said. “All the investments that are so criticized … the investments started to pay off.”

But the criticism has been unrelenting.

In one example of the heated debate about spending at the park, newly elected Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer attended the last council meeting and blasted the former council majority for handing out massive no-bid contracts to consultants who would do the “political bidding” of the former majority.

“I don’t care if it’s $220 million, $10 million or 20 bucks,” Spitzer said. “That money was improperly spent.”

More than $220 million has been spent on the park so far, with at least $50 million spent on design.

Critics say this level of spending without building more amenities than exist currently at the park is unconscionable.

Park CEO Mike Ellzey had said at the Jan. 8 council meeting that he will formulate a transition plan with a $125,000 budget to cover the loss of Forde & Mollrich services for the competition and expo. The services include handling social media, writing newsletters and helping obtain media sponsorships, according to Tim Shaw, the park's manager of external affairs.

Voice of OC has requested a copy of that plan but has yet to receive it.

Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who requested the staff update, says he has been assured that the event will go smoothly.

And he takes issue with Smoller’s characterization that having an elite public relations firm was helpful in getting the event.

“We were awarded the solar decathlon because of Irvine and the Great Park, not because of a public relations team,” Lalloway said. “No one has told me that we got the award because of a $1.2-million-per-year public relations contract.”

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