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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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Ben and Nikki Clay Ben and Nikki Clay

Major Philanthropic Gift Supports River Park at SDSU Mission Valley

Alumni Ben and Nikki Clay say they feel connected to the university’s park project, expected to become a well-maintained, regional amenity.
By Jeff Ristine

The story of Ben and Nikki Clay’s $750,000 gift to San Diego State University for the River Park at SDSU Mission Valley begins before the alumni couple even met, an era when Mission Valley was just beginning to transition from farmland to urban development.

“As a kid growing up in La Mesa we played down in the river and built rafts,” said Ben Clay, who also remembers visiting the 52-mile river’s headwaters near Julian with his family. “Later on, when we came out to San Diego State, we would go down and rent horses and ride down in the valley all the way to the beach and back.”

When one of the valley’s signature dairies closed down, Clay was part of a group of 14 that rented the property for a while as a place where they could do what they wanted with “nobody to offend.”

Years later Clay accepted an appointment from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the board of the San Diego River Conservancy, an independent state agency established to preserve, restore and enhance the San Diego River and its environs. He currently serves as chair of the 17-member board.

The Clays’ endowment will provide support for the development, operating, maintenance expenses and the greatest needs associated with the SDSU Mission Valley River Park.

The prospect of a river park as part of the broader SDSU Mission Valley development “resonated with both of us,” said Nicole “Nikki” Clay. Representing the conservancy, her husband previously had discussions with then-SDSU President Stephen Weber about research opportunities along the river, including a water-quality monitoring project.

The university’s purchase of the city-owned stadium land “was a gift from San Diego State to the community,” she said, “and we wanted to be part of that.”

Development plan

A new football stadium, already under construction, an SDSU Mission Valley Innovation District for teaching and research, and housing were prime features of the successful November 2018 ballot measure that authorized the sale of the former NFL stadium and parking lot.

A 34-acre river park will be developed on the heels of the completion of Snapdragon Stadium and part of more than 80 acres of community parks and open space for use by the entire community.

The park is designed to better manage both flooding and harmful runoff into the river and protect native plants and vegetation, and will include educational interpretive areas.

“The river is like the heart of the region,” Ben Clay said. “And you have to take care of your heart.”

“The folks that are putting this (SDSU Mission Valley) project together understood that very well and right out of the box.”

Long regarded as one of San Diego’s power couples, the Clays met as first-year students at San Diego State College; both were members of Associated Students.

Ben Clay received a B.A. in public administration in 1968, and is the retired founder of a governmental relations firm. Nikki Clay, who earned her degrees in 1967 and 1972, became a public relations executive and ultimately founded her own firm, The Clay Company.

Longtime support

The Clays co-chaired SDSU’s centennial celebration in 1997 and were honored as alumni of the year in 1998; both have long lists of additional civic and SDSU alumni and philanthropic involvement.

An internship scholarship in their name supports students in the School of Public Affairs; they also established a Presidential Scholarship for Merit Scholars and participated in fundraising for the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center. In 2016, the gateway to SDSU at Montezuma Road and Campanile Drive, marked by a 25-foot tower, was dedicated in their names.

“It has been great fun being out at San Diego State,” said Nikki Clay, who has served as SDSU’s Campanile Foundation board chair since 2021. “We really do feel like it’s our extended family.”

Like many alumni who remain in the region after graduation, the Clays see their gift as a form of payback for the value of their degrees and the subsequent success in their lives. “San Diego State helped launch us,” Ben Clay said.

He said he hopes the couple’s gift will serve as a “jumpstart” to additional contributions for the river park. “There are opportunities … for all sorts of San Diegans to become involved with.”

“It is a gift that will continue to give,” Nikki Clay added. “It is an opportunity to be part of, and to help the university of the future succeed. … It is an opportunity to really have an impact in San Diego — in Mission Valley, in our community and with that next generation of students.”