Is the Solar Decathlon in Trouble?

On Monday, the new Irvine Republican city council majority, in a 3-2 vote, will start charging $10 per adult and $5 a kid for the Great Park Balloon ride and likewise charge for the carousel rides to raise revenue to help pay for the 2013 Solar Decathlon coming to Irvine this fall.  What’s next, we ask…bake sales and car washes?  Monday’s meeting made the new council majority look cheap and small minded.

Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway, who chairs the Great Park Board, is now tasked with the responsibility for running the Solar Decathlon and making it a success, but there are two important considerations here:  Lalloway voted against the original event last year and, as a family law attorney, Lalloway lacks the business experience necessary to know how to manage and market a major event like the Solar Decathlon. So Lalloway goes into this with two strikes against him.  If you lack the experience to manage an event you voted against to begin with, just what is the over/under on the Solar Decathlon coming off without a hitch?  And the city is looking for an events planner, but whoever gets hired is going directly to the frying pan and shortly after that to the fire.  And yes, Agran is a lawyer too and Krom has experience with creative services — but both were expecting F&M to manage this event

What’s worse is the special meeting of the Great Park Board, conducted at a time when it was difficult for the public to attend, was held in front of Richard King.  Who’s Richard King you ask?  Richard King is an official with the Department of Energy who is the executive director of the Solar Decathlon, who now must be headed back to Washington with serious doubts about Irvine’s ability to manage a large event like the Solar Decathlon, after the three hour meeting where the council majority made the case for minutiae.

Irvine won the Solar Decathlon over dozens of cities not just because of the sunny days, open space and the Great Park, but precisely because of the work of Forde & Mollrich.  Were they expensive?  Yes they were.  Did the previous council majority pay too much for PR too much?  Perhaps.  The Voice of OC did a pretty damning story on the agency’s shortcomings in servicing the great Park account during the election cycle and I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of F&M, but when it comes to the Solar Decathlon, the new council majority cut off their nose to spite their face when what they should have done was cut the retainer.  The council majority threw out the baby with the bathwater.

The success in fundraising and managing a large event – like the Solar Decathlon — doesn’t come from the event itself being worthwhile, putting up a website and a Facebook page, or a lukewarm economy (many companies actually increased event sponsorships in the past two years) – it comes from personal connections to potential sponsors of which Forde & Mollrich have many.

Consider the SXSW event in Austin, Texas.  Haven’t heard of “South By Southwest?”  It’s an event that attracts the brightest minds in high technology, lots of venture capitalists and the hottest technology products and start-ups out there.  It generates about $130 million annually to the local Austin economy.  The Solar Decathlon could be Irvine’s and Orange County’s SXSW (for every other year).  Conservative estimates suggest the Solar Decathlon will generate more than $30 million to local coffers with Irvine being the chief beneficiary.  And to address this challenge, the council majority is playing “small ball.”

Let’s review:  F&M is gone.  The Great Park’s External Affairs Manager Tim Shaw has stepped down.  Mayor Pro Tem Lalloway is on the record for being against bringing the event to the city in the first place, seems to be against renewable energy with frequent references to Solyndra (to which the most appropriate response is “Enron”), and is now in charge of managing a large event.  From a marketing and PR perspective, the Great Park and Solar Decathlon are effectively a rudderless ship.  The budget being assigned for PR amounts to $10,000 a month which is less than the minimum monthly retainer for most PR agencies for a mid-sized client.    There are a number of firms who wouldn’t entertain a client that size.

When it comes to managing any event, positioning and message creation require a thorough assessment of the event’s goals and the deliverables needed to achieve them. The ideal sponsors must be identified, targeted and pitched until they offer an answer of yes or no.

Love them or hate them, if Larry Agran and Beth Krom hadn’t hired F&M to handle Measure F and Measure W more than 10 years ago, MCAS El Toro would be an international airport now.  It was F&M that put together RFPs that generated a $1 million grant for the Solar Decathlon that has a Return on Investment of potential more than $30 million.  Irvine’s proposal was called the “gold standard” by the Department of Energy after the highly competitive selection process was over.

The solar decathlon has widespread support in the community  — from the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, the Orange County Business Council, OC’s congressional delegation, and Chapman University and UC-Irvine.  And reluctant support from the Great Park Chairman who voted against it to begin with.

When the event happens, Irvine city staffers and the staff at GPC will do a good job–technically. The lights will work, there will be food and drink available, and the trash will be picked up. The real key to the event’s success is to make Irvine the permanent home. While SXSW brought in 167 million to the Austin economy in 2012, it took 25 years to get to that level. If the Irvine majority keeps acting provincial as they are, then 2015’s event could likely be in a city that not only knows how to think big but backs it up – San Diego for example.

There will be a 2013 solar decathlon, but to build to the 167 million that SXSW brings to Austin, the decathlon must come back in 2015, and every two years after that. The DOE had said that Irvine would be the permanent site because of the Great Park and the quality of the staff (most of whom are gone), but after Monday’s food fight, the big question is will Irvine be a stop or the new home of the event. The key to doing so is attendance. While the Great Park is a Great Site, it is going to take tremendous work to get the 300,000 people promised to DOE there. If we don’t get the numbers, you can be sure that in 2015 DOE will be looking for another location, and Irvine’s new Republican council majority will have blown an incredible opportunity.

Lastly, Mayor Steven Choi made an interesting crack that of the audience in attendance at the meeting, everyone was siding with Krom and Agran.  Choi wondered where the supporters of the council majority was and, “oh, they must be working at their jobs.”  Yet another example of Choi opening his mouth and inserting his foot.  A number of those in attendance were small business owners, contractors, or folks who took some PTO to attend a meeting that mattered.  The Mayor’s comment is yet another demonstration of his arrogance in being a Mayor to everyone in Irvine and not just his supporters.



  8 comments for “Is the Solar Decathlon in Trouble?

  1. MikeM128
    March 6, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    I thought that you Democrats were all about the revenue!

  2. Ryan Cantor
    March 6, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    In the Great Park’s bid for the Solar Decathlon, what did Irvine promise to deliver in matching private funds as a condition of being named the host and accepting the DoE grant?

  3. March 7, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Good story, Dan. (Ryan asks a good question, too, to which I presume that there is a good answer.)

    I know that you dislike other bloggers linking to their own stories in comments to your stories, even if such stories would provide a good complement to your story. Therefore, instead, here is a drawing of a picket fence:

  4. March 7, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Greg —
    You did a great story. Oooohh but you guys are just asking to have me yank your RSS feed aren’t you?

    • March 7, 2013 at 10:39 am

      Our feed on your site is yours to do with as you will.

      I think that it’s more important to highlight good stories elsewhere in the local blogosphere than to guard the borders of one’s comments section — which is why I linked to this very story of yours in a comment on mine.

      Your mileage may vary.


  5. Say What?
    March 7, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Time for Irvine to dump this convention of liberal whiners, global warming sycophants and worshipers of failed solar technology. Cut your losses, Lalloway.

    • March 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm

      Pseudonymity suits you, dear opponent of greatness. Think non-big!

  6. March 8, 2013 at 11:49 am

    The GP Board should put on its calendar for the residents to consider eliminating the pay for the Great Park board, auto allowance etc… thousands of dollars in savings to the City.

    The Council needs to commit to the Irvine residents and share in their pain. Pledge your Great Park stipend to the cost of the Solar Decathlon, why should our KIDS pay for the mistakes and your resolutions alone .

Comments are closed.