The anonymous donation of $259,500 to save San Diego’s beach fire pits has provided a little holiday warmth for a city that is cold, broke and desperate for help. The unexpected gesture, announced yesterday, led many San Diegans to heap praise on the unknown benefactor and renewed fond memories of a beach tradition that has spanned generations.
“Taking away the fire pits, when people are trying to economize, just kind of hurts things more,” said Robert Thomas, 49, an insurance specialist from Carlsbad. “I think somebody stepping in at Christmastime to do that is somebody who shows a great deal of good timing. It’s nice to know there are people like that out there that would do things because they’re thinking about the people of San Diego.”
This might not be the last time the city has to turn to the kindness of such donors to keep services from succumbing to mounting money problems. How does the Ocean Beach Branch Library sponsored by Sempra Energy sound? Or the Cabrillo Recreation Center brought to you by Irwin Jacobs?
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who announced the fire-pit donation on a rainy day at a Pacific Beach lifeguard station, said donors could help the city “get through the rough spots,” including a $54 million deficit looming next year. “We’re certainly going to have to look for anything we can in order to keep things open,” Sanders said. “If people feel strongly enough about it, then they let us know. We didn’t solicit this donation; it came to us.” He then immediately made a plea for any would-be corporate donors to contact his office – specifically development director Jennifer Wolff at (619) 236-7002.
For fire-pit supporters, the donation was the start of something good. Thomas, who often uses the fire pits, said “nothing could be more gallant” than an anonymous donation because the donor doesn’t get anything from it. For others, using fire pits on the beach is a tradition that is quintessential San Diego. Ingrid Sorenson, 60, a Santee accountant, said her family uses the fire pits at least 10 times a year. She said she’s glad someone stepped forward to keep them, but she doesn’t know if she fully supports the city relying on donors to provide services. “I think I would have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” Sorenson said.
Not everyone was thrilled with the donation. After the story appeared online yesterday, some readers commented in posts that they felt the money could be better spent on the homeless or used to help food banks. For example, the city’s winter homeless shelter for single adults costs $288,000 annually. Rob Johnson, 37, an information technology technician from San Carlos, said the donation was generous but “could have gone much farther and had more essential benefit to many had the money gone towards basic human needs, such as funds for struggling food banks.”
Such criticism was crowded out by people simply saying thanks.
The city has 186 fire pits along Mission Bay, La Jolla, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach. Two city employees use a front loader and a dump truck to regularly clean out the pits, which measure 5 feet by 5 feet and weigh nearly 2,000 pounds. The yearly maintenance cost is $173,000, most of which goes to the employees’ salaries.
The City Council approved the mayor’s recommendation to remove the pits to help close a $43 million budget gap this year. The city began digging up the pits Wednesday and had cleared 18 from Fiesta Island when the donor came forward, said Stacey LoMedico, the city’s park and recreation director. The pits will be restored by Friday, she said.
The donor gave the money through the nonprofit San Diego Foundation to remain anonymous. Had he or she given it directly to the city, the gift would have been public record.
The donation ensures the fire pits will remain open for the next 18 months – through June 30, 2010 – no matter how bad the city’s finances become. Sanders said he hopes others will contribute so the pits stay open beyond that date.
The donor made at least one soon-to-be 11-year-old boy very happy.
Jacqueline Sabanos, 38, an administrator with the University of San Diego, said her son, Kellan, had his heart set on celebrating his birthday with friends at a fire pit in Mission Bay. When the city made its cuts, she had to break it to him that a fire-pit celebration wouldn’t be possible.
“I’ll be able to go home and tell Kellan that all his friends can get together,” Sabanos said. “That’s just a memory for them in the future that when they were kids, they went down to the beach and had s’mores.”
Craig Gustafson: (619) 293-1399; firstname.lastname@example.org