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Community rallies to save gold discovery park from closure

By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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The curtain may come down on a cherished nugget of California history this fall. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park could close sometime after Labor Day along with approximately 100 other parks as part of the state’s attempts to balance the budget. The site appears on a May document of proposed park closures, but the final list won’t be released until early September, according to Jenna Nielsen, spokeswoman for Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Granite Bay. On Monday, Gaines sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asking him to reconsider closing the park based on economic, safety, historical preservation, cultural and educational reasons. “The economic hit of the park’s closure would spread far beyond that of El Dorado County,” Gaines said in the letter. “In addition to the effect on local tourism, businesses such as rafting, horseback riding and local shops will be devastated. This is not the time to be driving small businesses to shutter their stores and adding to our already high unemployment numbers.” Gaines’ office has received a huge response from the community, chambers of commerce, the Gold Discovery Park Association and El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to keep the park open, Nielsen said. Operating costs have put the park on the chopping block. It costs much more to keep it open than it collects in revenue, according to Alan Ehrgott, executive director of the American River Conservancy. Entrance fees are $8 per vehicle or $7 if there’s a senior over 62 in the car. Students who visit in their school bus and have a reservation through Reserve America get in free. For schools contracting with a commercial tour company for the visit, the tour companies pay $50 to $100 per bus, depending on the number of occupants, according to Jerry Kessler at the Marshall Gold Discovery Park Museum. Included among the thousands of visitors annually are some 70,000 fourth-graders from all over the state, many of whom get free admission. “They come to Marshall Gold for a fourth-grade history unit and the park provides an interpretation of the Gold Rush,” Ehrgott said. … “It’s kind of ironic that the park is being penalized by other (parks) that can charge revenue, when in reality it was the Legislature that set it up as a public (entity) to help our students learn about history. They’re putting limitations on what can be charged to children and the public. And because it doesn’t make as much money as other parks, it is slated for closure.” According to Ehrgott, in a community meeting last week in Coloma, Scott Nicaji, superintendent of the Gold Fields Park District, said it would take $500,000 to $700,000 to make the park profitable. Gaines’ office has requested and will be reviewing park-operating figures, Nielsen said. “Fees cover about $200,000,” she added. A call to Nicaji’s office was not returned as of press time. El Dorado County has joined the campaign on behalf of the park. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to support keeping the park open and funded, according to Terry Gherardi, administrative assistant to District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs. Briggs’ office is receiving a heavy volume of e-mails, letters and phone calls in favor of the effort — not just from the local area, but statewide, Gherardi said. Briggs held two meetings at the Marshall Gold site last week and planned to have another one Thursday. Fliers and posters have been printed for Thursday’s meeting with the focus on getting letters and e-mails into the hands of State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, who will make the final decision. The Gold Discovery Park Association is also involved in coordinating efforts to keep the park open and has received small donations for posters, banners and postage, Director Lois Fortress said. A Web site, keepsuttersmillopen.org has been created for the campaign and includes a calendar of events. Fortress is keeping an optimistic outlook. “This isn’t the first time,” she said. “It was on the list last year and was saved. I think it will stay open, but I don’t know what it will mean. I don’t know if there will be new guidelines.” Gloria Young can be reached at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com