Thursday, October 28, 2010

Troubled water museum project brings in 'main force' behind failed water museum project

The past is prologue, as the saying goes, and so news coming out of an agency struggling to build a $22 million publicly funded water museum proposed on the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary should have taxpayers and ratepayers very worried about how officials are handling millions of their dollars.

At the Oct. 18 meeting of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, board President Robert Apodaca announced that the agency has brought in former water official Phillip J. Pace to assist with fundraising for the project and said Pace would be working “behind the scenes."

The role that Pace played in another, now-failed water museum project was far more evident.

In a 2007 story on the troubles then plaguing the $26 million Center for Water Education, the Los Angeles Times called Pace the “main force” behind the project.

The paper reported that the board of directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California approved a $4.67 million bailout of the project, an amount that “was on top of $16 million in ratepayer money that the agency previously allocated to the Hemet-based Center for Water Education, which was on the verge of bankruptcy even before officially opening.”

The Press-Enterprise reported that the board “canceled the lease and took over the museum from the nonprofit foundation district directors had created to build and operate the facility.”

Pace, one of the district directors at the time, chaired the nonprofit foundation.

The project’s troubles also prompted California State Parks to warn the district that a $5 million grant might have to be repaid if it didn’t come up with a plan that fit the intent of the grant.

The Discovery Center Authority has applied to State Parks for a $7 million grant, reports the Los Angeles Times in a story on the impending retirement of the authority’s executive officer, Belinda V. Faustinos.

But Faustinos says that water bonds for recreation and habitat restoration, the source of such grants, are "slim picking these days."

Today, the district’s Hemet building houses its relocated Diamond Valley Lake Visitor Center, a charter school and an archeology museum. Not quite what ratepayers expect out of their water bills.

Now Pace brings what the authority board president calls his “great record of doing these types of things” to the trouble-plagued Whittier Narrows project.

Fundraising for the water museum and meeting hall has been stalled at less than $10 million for some years now. Last January, driven by financial worries, the authority reduced the construction price tag $5 million by reducing the project’s size. And five months later, Faustinos conceded that long-term operations funding was also an “issue.”

Authority board member Dan Arrighi called Pace “a good fit for us.”

Such words should strike terror into the hearts of taxpayers and ratepayers.

See also: Relocated water museum reopens as Diamond Valley Lake Visitor Center (Press-Enterprise website)