South El Monte Discovery Center project rejected for California State Parks grant
California State Parks authorities have rejected a request for a $7-million grant needed to begin construction on a controversial $22-million, 14,000-square-foot Discovery Center at the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary in South El Monte.
"We did not fund that project, " said Sedrick Mitchell, deputy director of California State Parks Office of Grants and Local Services. "You had to be a strong program to get funded, and we believe we did fund the best that the state has to offer."
The grant was sought by the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, which sees the proposed interpretive center as a gateway to a 17-mile stretch of parks and greenways connecting 10 cities along the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River.
The center's was among 307 grant requests totaling almost $1 billion that were competing for about $93 million in available grant money, Mitchell said.
Opponents decry the size of the center, which would replace dozens of mature trees -- as well as foraging grounds for migrating raptors and critical habitat for the Bell's vireo, an endangered songbird -- with state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and displays including a 7,000-square-foot model of the San Gabriel River with running water.
"Not getting this $7 million blows a big hole in their budget," said Jim Odling, a spokesman for the grassroots group Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, which opposes the project.
In a statement on Friday, Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the discovery center authorityâ€™s parent agency, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, said the project may no longer be able to meet its construction timeline.
She said the project would "seek other funding avenues." Among them is the California Community Foundation, a charitable organization that handed out nearly $5 million in priority grants to 43 nonprofits serving low-income, underserved communities. It has also contributed $100,000 to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11.
On Friday, California Community Foundation spokesman Raul Garza confirmed that the organization "has received a request for financial support for the discovery center, and it is under consideration."
The discovery center project was launched in 2001 with plans for a modest interpretive center. Since then, the plans have has mushroomed in size, and several environmental groups have either broken public ties with the center's stakeholders' committee or chosen to remain neutral.
Faustinos, who plans to retire in May, has said her decision to step down from the position was not related to a state Department of Finance audit that said the conservancy and its joint powers entity, the Watershed Conservation Authority, had not exercised adequate oversight of bond funds.
In November, members of the Gabrielino Band of Mission Indians denounced plans to build the center on a site they regard as ancestral lands.
In January, opponents urged the state Nature Education Facilities Program, which oversees grants for such facilities under Proposition 84, to reject the authority's grant application, alleging omissions and misrepresentations.
-- Louis Sahagun
For the record, 5:20 p.m. April 15: A previous version of this post misspelled Sedrick Mitchell's first name as Cedric. It also referred to him as the director of the California State Parks Office of Grants and Local Services. Mitchell is the deputy director.
Photo: A butterfly lands at the Whittier Narrows sanctuary in South El Monte. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times