Public Park Ends Up With Admission Fee, Sit-Down Restaurant And Bar

Staff Reports

Norco – The Riverside County Grand Jury is allegedly indicating Norco turned the 122-acre SilverLakes property that was intended for “public park, recreational and open space purposes” into a money-making venture that charges admission and features a full-service restaurant and bar.

The grand jury is calling on the district attorney to probe Norco officials’ handling of the project, the panel stated in a report issued last week.

“The SilverLakes Equestrian and Sports Complex is not a public park” as envisioned in a 2002 federal court order restricting use of the land north of the Santa Ana River along Hamner Avenue, the report states.

Norco officials dispute the grand jury’s contention and say the development is in compliance with the court-ordered restriction.

“They are interpreting it wrong,” City Manager Andy Okoro said by phone Tuesday, May 22.

The city intends to issue a detailed written response in a few weeks.

The park opened in September 2015. It hosts concerts, equestrian competitions, soccer tournaments and regional cross-country meets, among other events. The complex boasts 24 soccer fields, five equestrian arenas, a 12,000-square-foot outdoor cafe, a 10,000-person capacity concert venue called The BackYard and a 150-seat restaurant called The FieldHouse.

It drew 1.4 million visitors in 2017, said Cheryl Link, Norco’s city clerk.

However, SilverLakes has had a long and often troubled history.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued an investment company that owned the property until the late 1990s, alleging unethical practices, the report said. A judgment concluded that some Norco residents who invested in a Ponzi scheme associated with the property had been defrauded of their money. That led to the 2002 U.S. District Court order restricting the property’s use, once it was sold. The city acquired it.

Development was delayed for years, though, and it didn’t help that a 2010 flood along the Santa Ana River caused major damage. After site repairs, construction was finally underway in 2013, before wrapping up in late 2015. The developer is the Balboa Management Group.

While investigating Silverlakes, the grand jury took testimony from the city manager, former Norco elected officials and “concerned” Norco residents. Sara Lipchak, who headed the grand jury, said she could not elaborate.

The grand jury determined that the 2002 development restriction remains in place and the city unsuccessfully sought to alter it in 2004. The panel suggested that the city in 2012 misled the Riverside County Superior Court, which validated the city’s development strategy based on a submitted plan that was “substantially different from what was actually constructed.”

The grand jury report said that the “plans had no reference to constructing a full-service commercial restaurant and bar.”

The grand jury urged:

  • The district attorney to investigate why Norco officials accepted the developer’s bid to build a park with a major commercial component and provided “misleading documents” to the Riverside County court to obtain approval for “a commercial sports park rather than a genuine public park.”
  • Norco to stop charging admission to the park — $8 per walk-in visitor and $10 per carload.
  • Norco to add “actual recreational assets and amenities” such as shade trees, picnic tables, playgrounds, barbecue grills, tennis courts and bike trails.

Brian Petree, deputy city manager, acknowledged the admission charges, but said those are reserved for large weekend events and payments generally are not required from people who visit the park at other times.

As for the restaurant, Petree said it is an appropriate component because it has a concession operation that provides food and drinks for park visitors and is not unusual for a park of SilverLakes’ size.

“We’re not talking about a neighborhood park here. We’re talking about a regional facility,” he said. “And so, you have to look at it in that aspect.”