COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD
Observations

Jilted concessionaire claims rights

A current court case caught my attention because it involved one of my favorite places in California -- Yosemite National Park. It also reminded me of the unfortunate demise of Bazaar Del Mundo as the centerpiece of the Old Town State Park a decade ago.

Both situations involved a national concessionaire that captures important leases of public land and then abandons them when they don’t make as much money as they projected, or are not renewed for cause.

The culprit in these two situations is Delaware North, who stole away the lease in Old Town from a well-established local owner that made a lot of money for the state of California in lease payments. Delaware also was the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park since 1993. Over the past 20 years I have heard rumors of how badly managed that concessions was, which no doubt contributed to the fact that the lease was not renewed.

The current high-stake litigation concerns ownership of trademarks. Delaware claims it owns the names of the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Badger Pass, and even the logo of Half Dome, names of prominent Yosemite sites that have been there for 100 years or more. The former concessionaire wants to be reimbursed for its trade-name rights by the new concessionaire as though it had created them as intellectual property. How absurd!

Among other claims against the National Park Service, Delaware demands that the new concessionaire buy and pay fair value for the place names that they used to promote business in Yosemite. That sounds like the company had created these assets, which is entirely a misconception. Badger Pass, the popular ski resort, and Half Dome have been there for centuries; Curry Village was founded by the Curry family in 1899; the Ahwahnee Hotel was built by a member of the Curry family in 1927.

Delaware became the concessionaire in 1993, years after these three sites were identified with Yosemite Valley. The company never owned them, only leased them. A critic was quoted in a recent story that these assets belong to the public; if anyone capitalizes on those names, it should be the public.

I am hardly an expert in trademark law, but it seems the rightful owner of the site, and its name, belongs to the public domain. Should concessionaires at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island own the names? Or tenants in Balboa Park claim rights to the House of Hospitality or the Old Globe Theatre? The personal property, yes; the site and its name, no. They are public domain.

By some magic formula, Delaware has valued its intellectual property rights at $51 million. I suppose that could be a fair valuation because Yosemite produces the most revenues for the National Park Service, estimated at $121 million per year. The new contract with Aramark, the concessionaire for 15 years, is valued at $2 billion in gross revenues over the life of the lease.

Obviously there is a lot at stake in this legal action with those kinds of profits. Most of the facilities created for tourist benefits over the last 150 years can be attributed to the original concessionaire. The Yosemite Park and Curry Company ran the operation for 94 years when Delaware took over. If anyone is entitled to trademark rights for the facilities in Yosemite, it would be the Curry family.

I hope this litigation will not prevent the new concessionaire, Aramark, from taking over on the scheduled date in 2016. In any event the court decision could be a landmark issue for future leases and concessions of public property.

While on the subject of parks, I was also encouraged to read that a major improvement to Balboa Park for diverting traffic around the Plaza de Panama is back into consideration. For the past four years, the local historic preservation group has prevented this project from proceeding. If done on the original time schedule it would have eased traffic patterns in the central area and provided additional parking space during the centennial.

Bruce Coons and his Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) objected to the bypass route off of the Cabrillo Bridge below grade level with an entry to a large underground parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion. A $40 million grant was pledged by Irwin Jacobs with other support from Balboa Park patrons to accomplish this improvement in time for the centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

After a series of court hearings, the objections to the plan were finally dismissed in September, paving the way to consider reinstating the bypass and new parking area. I found this scheme to be practical, as we do not need flowing traffic in the center of the park area, and we also need more parking. The new parking area would be underground for 800 vehicles and providing more landscape space behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to replace the large tarmac parking lot.

The win-win plan was blocked by Coons because he claimed the off-ramp of the Cabrillo Bridge destroyed the historical integrity and scenic view. In fact, there was hardly any place that you could see this new route from a distance. It surprised me that Coons did not see the advantage of keeping traffic out of the park center, which should be something his organization would support.

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Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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