California could consider acquiring Neverland Ranch as a state park

As home to pop legend Michael Jackson, Neverland Ranch housed a working locomotive, a Ferris Wheel and other amusement park rides, a 10,000-volume library and a zoo.

But could the opulent Santa Barbara County estate become home to California’s newest state park?

A resolution is in the works to order state parks officials to study converting the roughly 2,600-acre property into a state park. The state NAACP is backing the idea, and a lawmaker has signaled he is on board to carry the legislation.

"I think Michael’s history is world history and I think it would become the No. 1 attraction for the state parks if we could pull it off," said state NAACP President Alice Huffman, who also serves on the state Parks Commission.

Huffman said in addition to celebrating Jackson’s contributions to music and pop culture, Neverland would join Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park as state parks honoring African Americans. Those factors, she said, would make Neverland a "great, great addition to the state parks system."

Assemblyman Mike Davis, who chairs of the Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media, said while details of the resolution still need to be worked out, he thought the idea made "great sense" when it was first proposed to him at a recent reception.

"If they want to do it, I think it would be a great venture for the Parks Department of the state given the worldwide success (of Michael Jackson) and the fact that the state is lucky to have this property in our state," the Los Angeles Democrat said.

The property is controlled by Santa Monica-based Colony Capitol, LCC, a private-equity firm that acquired the ranch when Jackson was facing foreclosure in 2008. The company declined to comment, though company President Thomas J. Barrack Jr. told Bloomberg News last month he hoped to sell it for more $100 million when the housing market recovers.

While Huffman said she hoped the state could explore partnerships for acquiring the ranch, such a potentially high asking price could be a deal breaker for some stakeholders.

State parks spokesman Roy Stearns said the already cash-strapped parks department isn’t looking to add properties to its portfolio, especially one that would cost $100 million.

"There has been no participation in any discussions about us acquiring Neverland," he said. "At this point in time we have no interest in acquiring the property."

Davis and other supporters also pointed to Tennessee’s Graceland, the privately-owned and operated estate of Elvis Presley, as an example of how such a venture could create revenue. Graceland park operations generated $36 million in revenue in 2009, according to the Memphis Business Journal.

Huffman likened a Neverland state park to Hearst Castle, another high-dollar celebrity dwelling that has come into the state’s hands.

The San Simeon estate of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was donated to the state in 1957 and welcomes about 800,000 visitors a year.

A tour costs $24 per person, but Stearns said it isn’t exactly a money-making venture for the state.

"It’s usually close to breaking even, but it’s an expensive place to maintain," he said.

Still, Huffman said the historic value of the property makes the idea worth exploring, even if profit levels are questionable.

"Even if it breaks even, when you’re preserving history and you’re making it available to the public, there are other values to that are assigned more than the money," Huffman said. "I think it would be a money-maker, but (more importantly) I think it’s a piece of California history and world history that ought to be preserved."