Carol Berman just wanted to dress in period costumes and get others interested in local history when she started volunteering decades ago at the state capitol and Fischer-Hanlon House downtown.

Now she finds herself making history as she heads a community group determined to forge an agreement to keep Benicia’s state parks open. Both sites – the state recreation area at the western edge of town and the downtown capitol park that includes the Fischer-Hanlon House — are on the list of 70 state parks slated to close by July 2012.

“This is totally unprecedented,” the retired teacher says. “The worst time before this was the Depression, and there were fewer state parks then. It’s that serious.”

Carol, 65, is president of the Benicia State Park Association, a non-profit group working to establish a partnership with the city and state that would allow operations to continue at both local parks. She volunteered with the group’s predecessor in the 1980s, and became active with the local group again in 2006.

A Benicia resident for 35 years, Carol also is a board member for the Benicia Library Foundation and the Benicia Historical Society, serves on the city’s Tourism Committee, and takes an active role in the costume shop for Benicia Old Town Theatre Group. Her husband, Bob, is an environmental planner who joined the Benicia State Park Association board this summer.

When Carol talked to Benicia Magazine in late July, committees were developing plans for everything from security and maintenance to volunteer staffing and fundraising on behalf of the local state parks. City staff was working on proposals for a private-public partnership needed to keep the sites open. Benicia council members were scheduled to consider options for different levels of commitment in late August or September, then the city’s plan would go to the state.

“I’m a real optimist,” Carol said. “I think we’ll be able to keep the status quo in terms of the number of days the sites are open if we can come up with an operating agreement.” The capitol and Fischer-Hanlon House are open Saturdays and Sundays, and the state recreation area is open Wednesday through Sunday.

But getting to that point will require diligent work and a large commitment from the city and volunteers.

“This is like a birthing process – and someone said that I’m the midwife,” she says. ”It’s really messy.”

Why are you committed to keeping the parks open?

Because I don’t want to see the capitol or the Fischer-Hanlon House shuttered, meaning closed. They’re just too great an asset to the community and to California in general.

It’s a crime. I’ll do anything that I can to prevent plywood from going up, from cyclone fences going up, and to keep the capitol and the Fischer-Hanlon House open two days a week and the state recreation area open five days a week.

What would it look like to actually close the parks?

They call it mothballing. They’d take out almost everything at the Fischer-Hanlon House – the tables, the furnishings. They’d take everything from the wedding dresses to the seashells gathered by the sisters. Everything up to the Steinway, the most valuable artifact, although it might go to another site. And there are the carriages in the carriage house that will have to go somewhere. This is going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What would happen at the state recreation area?

It’s a little different there because it receives federal funding, and you can’t deny access to the water. Fish and Game could come in and install someone, or we could get a younger state ranger whose salary would be less than a long-time ranger. Or, for about $1,000 a month, we could give room and board to someone to live there. Someone who would open the gates, open the restrooms – just provide security. That idea came from one of our volunteers.

We have to propose a number of scenarios and see what the state accepts. I don’t expect anything back from the state until the first of the year.

Why do you expect the state review to take so long?

Seventy different sites are on the closure list and, for each site, there’s a group working on ways to keep their site open. But there is no sample operating agreement to look at, so different arrangements are being made with each of the different groups in different places. We’re creating this entire arrangement anew, and the state is not being a very supportive parent.

What are some of the difficulties in reaching an agreement with the state?

Right now, nonprofit groups cannot legally take over operations of a state park. So we’re waiting for the outcome of AB 42, which would allow nonprofit groups to do that. That would be a big change for the state parks association: taking on personnel, managing the operations – that’s an entirely different situation than what we have now.

Also, the state is demanding a 10-year agreement, which is a long time to commit to.

How many volunteers will it take to keep the parks operating?

To maintain the status quo, I used to say we’d need 20 to 30 people. But I think we’ll probably have to have double that to realistically cover the shifts and do the work. We can do the gardening, haul the trash, clean the bathrooms, dust – if they let us, if we get an operating agreement.

Do you expect volunteers will take on more tasks as part of a new partnership?

They’ll have to, but I’m convinced the state is not going to allow the citizenry to run either of these sites. We’ll have to have a state employee on site along with the volunteers. The state owns it and they won’t relinquish ownership.

I’m not sure the state park association is ready to take on the full operations at this time. But there are literally people coming out of the woodwork willing to help, other nonprofits contacting us to help, so it’s giving us more confidence that this could occur. But it’s scary.

Do you have an estimate of how much it will cost to keep both state parks open?

We can have a bare-bones operation at the capitol and Fischer-Hanlon House for about $40,000 a year. That’s with two paid, seasonal people, for two days a week, but no benefits, disability or workers’ comp, and that doesn’t take into consideration utilities or supplies like toilet paper for the bathrooms, so the overall costs will be higher.

When we’re talking about operation of the state recreation area, we’re talking six figures. The historic sites are much less because we don’t have as large an area to maintain.

What has the state done to prepare for closing the parks?

We were told (in July) that the state started building cases for the archives and artifacts in 2008. … We’ve learned that there were measurements taken for plywood to go over all the windows. They’ve taken measurements at all 70 sites, though not all of them have historic homes.

The state required recently a listing of costs to inventory (the buildings).

We were in the garden recently and the ranger said they’d had to give cost estimates on restoring the garden if it were abandoned. These are 100-year-old plants. How do you restore those?

How do you get information from the state?

We get info from the rangers and people in Sacramento at the state Office of Historic Preservation.

Sometimes when we ask a question, the rangers tell us they’re not allowed to answer that question. We’ve learned that you have to ask the correct question at the correct time, and we don’t always have the information to know what question should be asked at a given moment.
I think we should work more closely, have more communication between us and the state.

We had threats in 2008 that they might close the parks, but it’s becoming clear now that there were things going on at the state level since then that we didn’t know about.

What can the Benicia State Parks Association do to keep the parks operating?

The city does not know what to do with the interior of the buildings. They can mow, they can prune, but they have no means to provide operations. … With the parks association in place, we can collect monies, we can advocate, and we have docents and volunteers, so we can do those things.

What will the group work on while the state is reviewing the proposed agreement?

I think we need to do fundraising now. If you can start bankrolling money, it adds weight to the operating agreement. We have $15,000 right now, which would usually be spent on education, interpretation and conservation. We’re also trying to get more businesses involved.