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Point of View: School’s in session this political season

Roman S. Koenig

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2013_COLUMN_KOENIG_RRocks, sand and a glass container.

Encinitas City Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar brought teaching tools and a lesson plan for her portion of the State of the City address on April 4 at the Community Center. With a volunteer from the audience, Gaspar used the rocks, sand and glass to illustrate the importance of fiscal responsibility.

Was it a cynical slap in the face to the city’s planned purchase of the Pacific View school property in downtown Encinitas? Was it an homage to the plans, with a call for fiscal restraint? It was tough to tell.

What was clear, however, was Gaspar’s displeasure with the city’s purchase of the long-closed campus for $10 million from the Encinitas Union School District. From the tone of her comments, the idea of the purchase wasn’t the problem, it was the haste and cost under a seemingly never-ending “fiscal crisis” mode.

Audience volunteer by her side, Gaspar filled the glass container with sand, symbolizing “enhancement projects” such as new parks, open space and other quality-of-life extras. Then came the rocks, representing “core services” such as fire protection and street maintenance. The goal of the experiment was to fit the sand and rocks together without spilling over the top of the container. Of course — since it was designed to prove her point — the more rocks that were added after the sand, the more the material overfilled the container.

The lesson? The more enhancements that are added, the fewer core services can fit, causing an imbalance. The Pacific View school site framed this lesson.

“Our recent $10 million Pacific View property acquisition is an example of slipping more sand in before the big rocks,” she told the crowd of business leaders, community activists and residents.

Gaspar’s cautionary tale via school lesson was countered by Councilwoman Teresa Barth, who was quick to point out that she wasn’t “really good at magic acts.” Instead, the current mayor (who will be replaced by Gaspar this summer) defended the purchase as a necessary move designed to protect a gem of a parcel that deserves to remain in the public domain.

Where Gaspar created the ambience of a high school classroom to illustrate her point, Barth stuck to analysis and the ideal of worthy risk-taking when opportunity knocks, as the city did with Pacific View.

“You have had faith in us, you invest in us, you work here, and … you take risks,” she told the crowd at the opening of the speeches. In her speech, she highlighted progressive Encinitas businesses that are having a growing impact regionally and beyond, such as urban hydroponic farm Go Green Agriculture.

Barth discussed the ongoing process of developing the city’s strategic plan, designed to identify and pursue those core services the city needs and the enhancements the community deserves. She said the purchase of Pacific View was in keeping with the strategic plan’s goal of developing great gathering places for the public, arts included.

“The recent purchase of the historic Pacific View school property reflects every one of those goals,” she said. “While it is a significant financial commitment, economic studies consistently show that arts and culture venues create positive economic impacts.”

Barth cited a recent county study stating that “the arts generated $665 million in economic activity; that’s supporting businesses like yours. The study also found that Encinitas has the second highest concentration of working artists, studios and galleries in San Diego County,” she said.

When it appeared that the property was going to be put up for auction by the school district a few weeks ago after the city and school district appeared at an impasse over a deal, Leucadia resident Scott Chatfield rallied the community by creating the SavePacificView.org campaign. The campaign pushed the city to give Pacific View a second look, and that push was successful.

Gaspar’s call for conservative fiscal caution shouldn’t be ignored — nor should the need for the city to take an occasional risk to secure a piece of public property with the intent to keep it that way. The city ultimately did the right thing in securing a deal to buy Pacific View. Such deals shouldn’t be a habit, either, however.

We have Gaspar’s cosmology of fiscal balance, as illustrated by her school lesson, and we have Barth’s call for public benefit, in which the needs of a community’s heart are worth the occasional risk to the balance sheet.

So the city really got two lessons out of this process — one in fiscal physics, and one in worthy risk-taking. Already, however, special interests are leaping on the issue ahead of this election year, one in which Encinitas is set to elect its first mayor.

Seaside Courier, a Mission Valley newspaper transplant owned by former San Diego City Councilman Jim Madaffer, is already joining the chorus of naysayers to the Pacific View deal from outside the community. In a recent editorial, the newspaper said the city “needlessly squandered taxpayer money for a white elephant.”

Were Seaside Courier based in the communities it serves, it would know that the Pacific View school site has historical, public importance to this community dating to the 1880s. It’s not just a private parcel going from greenhouses to condominiums. The public good — especially when you’re dealing with an already public property — can’t simply be judged on what Gaspar called “kitchen table economics.”

Even Gaspar must have acknowledged this consideration at some level when she was part of the unanimous City Council vote for a last-ditch discussion with the school district to buy the property.

The city of Del Mar saw this when it opted to purchase the Del Mar Shores school property a few years ago under similar circumstances.

Gaspar’s concerns about the ultimate purchase price are fair to consider, and the city will have to find a way now to pay for it. But the property — as a community gem along a coastline with few city parks, and at best postage-lot ones — is not a “white elephant.”

True, the property will need a lot of work to restore it. But the term “white elephant” also assumes that the property will yield little, if anything, in return. With buildings and other infrastructure already in place on the parcel — designed for community use — it’s a public property that can generate revenue in return someday. Part of the Del Mar Shores property is leased to a private school, for example.

Seaside Courier’s stunning diminishment of the city’s residents — referring to them as whining children — adds insult to what’s been a frazzled process to secure Pacific View.

“It’s like a family living in a house with a leaky roof and bad pipes — and yet they go out and buy a motorhome that’s going to need a lot of work to get in tip-top shape, simply because the kids were whining.” That’s the Seaside Courier’s assessment of the residents it supposedly covers along the North Coast.

Whether the criticism of the Pacific View deal comes from inside or outside the community — from fiscal responsibility to civic good and civilized discussion — there will be many more lessons to be learned as the project moves forward in an election year.

Roman S. Koenig is editor and publisher of the North Coast Current. Columns are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of North Coast Current ownership. Comment below or submit letters to the editor at letters@northcoastcurrent.com.

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News online for Encinitas, Calif.
Point of View: School’s in session this political season