Marconi Center hopes for better deal with state

09/21/2017

The nonprofit that operates the Marconi Conference Center is continuing to negotiate with California State Parks for a longer operating contract, a move that would enable the historic center to begin fundraising to renovate its premises, which a longtime groundskeeper says are in dire need of renovation.

A public meeting at the Marshall property last Wednesday drew just a few community members, who sat in a circle inside the center’s Buck Hall alongside representatives from State Parks, employees of the center and board members of the Marconi Conference Center Operating Corporation. 

It was the second public meeting of its kind this summer—a final meeting will be held this fall—in a series mandated by the center’s three-year contract, signed last December. The meetings are intended to help the operating corporation develop a “relevancy plan” and to provide an opportunity for community members to give input on how the facility should move forward. 

Matthew Trout, the center’s groundskeeper, said the historical structures—including a hotel building and cottage listed on the National Register of Historic Places—are aging and require support.

“I heard conversations like this 20 years ago,” he said. “I’ve probably had more time here on this park than anybody. These historical structures need to have people in them and they need to be used. They need help and they need help quick. To continue on with the status quo is not going to do it.” 

State Parks has owned the property since 1989, when the San Francisco Foundation donated it on the condition that it be used as a conference center with a lodging facility open to the public. The parks department has supported the center with yearly payments of $172,000, or about 11 percent of the center’s annual revenue, for 27 years. 

But last year, those payments stopped. 

James Luscutoff, assistant deputy director for State Parks’ Partnership Office, said the department could no longer afford to subsidize the operation. “We have 280 park units we’re responsible for and we have a facility management division that reviews and prioritizes projects within the California State Parks system,” he told the Light.

But Marshall resident and retired lawyer George Clyde argued last Wednesday that the decision to cut funding, and to extend such a short contract, ignored the obligations that came with the donated property.

“It’s inhibited planning [and] impacted partnerships and reservations,” Mr. Clyde said. “You really can’t expect [to put] together a plan without a longer-term commitment.”

Last year, the operating corporation hired a new executive director, Amy Beilharz, and began offering its meeting rooms to community organizations free of charge. It announced it wanted to renovate and open its 40 overnight rooms for rent to the public (it has renovated just two). It installed a robust internet and phone service system and began hosting a monthly live music series. 

If the center were to be granted a longer contract, Ms. Beilharz said, it would expand its local partnership program (it’s currently partnered with over 40 companies). It would also turn to fundraising for projects such as opening a public restaurant on the property and restoring the historic hotel and cottage structures, she said. 

That’s “on the right track,” said Mr. Luscutoff, who reiterated the importance of community input and support. (“I can’t tell you how powerful the local community is. As it should be,” he said.) But he also told the group that the department has concerns about ongoing funding and “making sure that if we enter a 50-year contract, we have some guarantee [that the operating corporation] is not promising us something they can’t deliver. I don’t hear anything that I don’t think we can’t do, but we have to make sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.”

The Marconi Conference Center opened its doors in 1990 after the property was gifted to the California State Parks Foundation by the San Francisco Foundation, with help from the Buck Trust. 

The foundation had purchased the property in 1980 from the Synanon Foundation, then a Santa Monica-based drug rehabilitation organization, which had made Marshall its world headquarters. 

Before Synanon, the land was a bustling center of progressive technology. The Marshall Receiving Station for the American Marconi Company housed radio technology that made almost-instant communications possible throughout the Pacific.