Tools used by workers who are building a seating area near the balloon attraction at Irvine's Great Park. Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro

Monday, April 19, 2010 |The city of Irvine spends $100,000 every month trying to improve the Great Park’s image. But positive vibes about the park, which backers hope one day will rival New York City’s Central Park, remain hard to come by, according to a Voice of OC/Probolsky research poll.

Negative responses to the question “please tell me what you know about the Great Park” outnumbered the positive by 61% to 39% in the poll of 326 likely voters this month. Dozens of respondents said “the park is not making progress.” Others described it as “wasteful” or a “bad idea.”

Such responses persist despite the fact that Irvine is paying the public relations firm Forde and Mollrich $2.4 million, by way of a no-bid contract, to promote it.

The park has a monumental task ahead of itself, said Adam Probolsky, Voice of OC’s polling director. The park must look like something “truly special” to get the community excited, but it also needs community support to accomplish that.

Forde and Mollrich has not done anything to get the community excited, said Christina Shea, who is both an Irvine city councilwoman and a Great Park board member. She gave the firm’s performance an “F.”

“They should be let go – fired – and we should go out to bid,” Shea said.

The PR contract’s scope of work specifically calls on Forde and Mollrich to dispatch “key messengers” to speak with the media. The firm refused Voice of OC’s interview request for this story.

Right now the park, which has a preview site that has been open to the public for nearly three years, looks mostly vacant and unfinished. The biggest daily attraction at the park is a giant balloon that takes riders up 400 feet for an aerial view of the city.

Great Park backers – which include the majority of the Irvine City Council – say the park has been the victim of partisan politics, an unfair media, an apathetic public and The Great Recession. They also say a recent lawsuit has stalled progress by squashing a land deal with Lennar Corp. that would have given the park $40 million for construction costs.

There is also some countywide resentment of the Democratic control of Irvine’s city council, said Roger Faubel, President of Faubel Public Affairs. There has been a “Republican backlash and a bit of jealousy about the 3-2 vote,” Faubel said, referring to the majority enjoyed by Democrats.

The 1,347-acre park also faces competition with the plethora of open spaces already available to OC residents, Probolsky said. The park’s benefit to Orange County is nowhere near the benefit of Central Park to New York because that park is the only major open space park in a dense urban setting, he said.

“Even in Irvine, the desire to go to the Great Park is probably fairly limited, let alone if you’re from San Clemente or Costa Mesa,” Probolsky said.

Faubel says the firm’s performance is tied to the media’s inability to reach the audience it once did. “I think the result you may be seeing is because of — regrettably — the lack of people reading the papers,” Faubel said.

Great Park CEO Mike Ellzey said — like many of those polled — that he is “disappointed” with the park’s progress.

But the fact that four out of five OC residents do know about the Great Park is “outstanding,” Ellzey said. Also, he said, the people giving the negative responses probably have never been to the park.

Larry Agran, an Irvine city councilman and chairman of the Great Park board, said the park is about two years behind where he would have liked to see it, but that early expectations were too high. “Did they think somehow magically we were going to have a 1,347-acre park overnight?”

Development is now focused on a 200-acre portion of the park where construction has already begun on the Kid’s Rock playground. Further improvements slated to begin this summer include a soccer field on the North Lawn, upgrades to the Farm & Food Lab and a meadow/picnic area adjacent to the park’s festival grounds, Agran said.

“Look around at the rest of Orange County and Southern California,” Agran said. “Nothing is moving forward.”

The telephone poll conducted between April 6 and April 11. The question regarding the Great Park is as follows: Please tell me what you know about the Great Park. If you’ve never heard of it or have no opinion about it just say so. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percent.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of acres in the great park. We regret the error.

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