Carnival barker’s nightmare. Supes to probe GG Park Ferris Wheel money

Thank goodness there are investigative journalists like Tim Redmond, long time San Francisco reporter.  Unceasingly vigilant at ferreting out corruption and the coziness between big business and City Hall he knows how the City really works.

The following report in 48 Hills, the on-line successor to the Bay Guardian, paints a stark picture of what the carnival barkers dream in Golden Gate Park is all about.

This latest tale of  insidious politics San Francisco  exposes once and for all why this corporate bauble, promoted by Rec and Park Director Phil Ginsburg and his corporate cronies, must go.  NOW!!

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48 Hills – Tim Redmond 2.23.2021

The Ferris Wheel in Golden Gate Park has (weirdly) become another front in the Yimby battles, with the likes of Sen. Scott WienerRandy Shaw, and Sam Moss (but not Laura Foote!) attacking the people who don’t want to see the giant attraction stay in the park for another four years.

But there’s another side of the story that isn’t being told.

The reason the Recreation and Parks Department wants to extend the run of the Ferris Wheel – according to Rec-Park documents – is that the St. Louis-based vendor that built it, SkyStar Partners, needs about 500,000 rides to make the roughly $9 million it was counting on.

And the private San Francisco Parks Alliance, which is a part of the FBI corruption investigation in SF, was counting on taking its share of about $500,000.

You can read the contract here. Not a penny of the revenue from this carnival ride will go to the city. It’s split between SkyStar and the Parks Alliance, which is supposed to use it to finance celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate Park.

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But we have seen the problems with what the Parks Alliance does with its money. From the SF Controller’s Office:

Mohammed Nuru and others would direct staff to procure goods and services for staff appreciation, volunteer programs, merchandise, community support, and events from specific vendors, circumventing city purchasing controls. These purchases would then be reimbursed through Public Works subaccounts held by the Parks Alliance, a non-city organization, again outside of city purchasing rules. Mr. Nuru solicited funds for these purchases from interested parties, including businesses that had contracts with the department or city building permits. The gifts, which were not accepted or disclosed by the City, create a perceived “pay-to-play” relationship.

Since COVID at first reduced the capacity of the Ferris Wheel and then shut it down, neither private entity is getting the money they expected. So the idea is to let the wheel keep running until the cash comes in. From the Rec-Park staff report:

With the future availability of operational days for the wheel and future capacity limits unknown, SFPRD proposes a permit modification that will allow the Operator to recoup extra costs incurred due to closures and operational compliance with COVID safety requirements; as well as to allow Golden Gate Park visitors to experience the wheel. To accomplish these goals, the Department is proposing to extend the Permit until March 1, 2023. This extension will accommodate the anticipated riders from the original permit and an increase in ridership to help offset the financial hardship suffered by the Operator. The Operator has had to incur significant costs (i) to secure and maintain the wheel while it was closed , (ii) to follow COVID safety requirements with extra staffing and protocols when it re-opened, and (iii) due to the significant cost of closing shortly after finally opening.

Lots of San Francisco small businesses (and SkyStar is not a San Francisco small business) have suffered deeply during the pandemic. Most of them aren’t getting this kind of deal to bail them out.

Sups. Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan are calling on the controller and the city’s budget analyst to investigate the Parks Alliance and its role in this deal:

“Instead of going directly to our city’s general fund, the revenue generated from Skystar is going to a nonprofit that is still under FBI and public corruption investigations,” said Chan, whose district includes Golden Gate Park. “It raises the question of whether this is a good government practice and whether such practices contribute to the ‘pay-to-play’ culture among city agencies.


Recent revelations have demonstrated that the opaque nature of several organizations, including the SF Parks Alliance, has aided and abetted corruption within San Francisco government.”

Argue all you want about how much fun the Ferris Wheel can be. (It will operate in a fenced-off area where you need an $18 ticket to enter, and will be able to sell food and booze there—at, I suspect, rather high prices.) A lot of neighbors aren’t happy. That’s one part of the debate.

But the money from this operation is going to a group that is now going to be under multiple investigations. That’s another story entirely.

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