San Francisco’s debate over whether to keep a Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park operating for four additional years escalated Tuesday, with two supervisors calling for an investigation into a deal that gives a nonprofit a share of the ticket sales.
Supervisors Connie Chan and Aaron Peskin are asking the City Controller and the Budget Analyst’s Office to investigate the agreement between the Recreation and Parks Deparment and the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance for the park’s 150th Anniversary celebration, including the permit that awards the Parks Alliance $1 from every $18 adult ticket sold for a Ferris wheel ride. The two cited the nonprofit’s involvement in an ongoing City Hall corruption scandal as cause for concern.
The 150-foot tall, illuminated SkyStar Wheel was installed in the park’s Music Concourse in 2020 for one year as part of Golden Gate Park’s 150th Anniversary celebration. A small portion of ticket sales was expected to go toward funding the celebration, but then the celebration had to be modified and the wheel was largely shut down due to COVID-19.
Recreation and Parks Department officials now want the wheel to remain in the park for another four years, and have cited its popularity and the revenue it could bring in support of the proposal. But it has drawn criticism from environmental advocates who argue it has adverse impacts on the park and wildlife. Chan has previously said she would only support a one-year extension.
The Recreation and Parks Commission voted last week to approve a four-year permit extension with SkyStar Wheel, LLC, a Missouri-based company, but the permit still requires approval by the Historic Preservation Commission to go into effect. The body plans to vote March 3, after it had postponed a previous vote at Chan’s request.
The Golden Gate Park 150th Anniversary celebration cost $1.9 million; all but $200,000 of that was raised by the Parks Alliance from private sources, according to the nonprofit’s spokesperson.
The $200,000 is supposed to come from the nonprofit’s share of Ferris wheel revenue, per the agreement with Rec and Park. But since the wheel could only operate for 39 days last year due to the COVID-19 shutdown, the nonprofit has received just $37,616 to date.
The department intends to sign a new permit, upon approval by the Historic Preservation Commission, to pay the Parks Alliance the remaining $162,000. Then the money generated would go to the department directly for other uses, according to Rec and Parks spokesperson Sarah Madland.
Chan noted the Parks Alliance has come under investigation in the federal City Hall corruption probe involving former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, who faces public corruption charges.
The Parks Alliance had collected nearly $1 million in donations since 2015 for Public Works from city contractors and businesses with building permits, as detailed in a September City Controller report. Nuru would solicit these funds, and they were largely spent at his direction on holiday parties and events for his staff as well as merchandise and volunteer programs.
“Although some purchases appear to be appropriate,” others may have been made out of favoritism or to skirt city rules, the report said.
The nonprofit, which denies any wrongdoing and has not been charged in the probe, has long served as a fiscal sponsor for hundreds of groups and city agencies “allowing them to seek grants and solicit tax-deductible donations under its tax-exempt status,” the report said.
Chan told the San Francisco Examiner she was “not making any allegations,” but that the deal raises questions.
“Instead of going directly to our city’s general fund, the revenue generated from Skystar is going to a nonprofit that frankly is still under FBI and our city’s public corruption investigations,” Chan said Tuesday. “This really raises the question of whether this is a good government practice or whether such practices contribute to the ‘pay-to-play’ culture among city agencies.”
Peskin said the arrangement deserves more scrutiny.
“This definitely deserves a close look,” Peskin said. “And so begins what will become known as Ferris-gate.”
Rec and Parks said they welcomed anyone to take a closer look.
“While COVID-19 forced us to cancel some of our 150th anniversary events, we were able to bring other attractions to provide safe, joyful fun amid an otherwise dark time,” Rec and Parks spokesperson Sarah Madland said. “We added five young bison to our herd, installed Entwined, and embarked on numerous park beautification projects. Our agreements with the nonprofit Parks Alliance, including those involving the SkyStar Wheel, went through a transparent public process and, like any other civic celebration, are open for anyone to examine.”
Drew Becher, CEO of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, said in a statement, “We embrace this scrutiny and the increased transparency that will result from it, because SFPA does not have, and never has had, anything to hide.”
He also threw in some criticism of the supervisors.
“We welcome any discussions with the Board of Supervisors in the spirit of fighting public corruption and increasing transparency and believe that direct conversation is always more productive than attention-grabbing press releases,” he said.