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A Park in peril: Task force calls for conservancy to quell ‘powder keg’

Posted: April 29th, 2010 | Balboa Park, Communities | No Comments

By Christy Scannell
SDUN Editor

Balboa Park – often referred to as the city’s “gem” by politicians and residents alike – has a famous zoo, a world-renowned theater and iconic architecture – but it has no manager.

The 1200-acre home of 15 major museums also has no public fundraising arm, nor does it have a formal volunteer corps.

At 14 million visitors a year, Balboa Park is the fourth most visited city park in the nation. Yet land-use processes, a safety plan and a library of park documents are non-existent.

What Balboa Park does have: at least $250 million in deferred maintenance needs. And as of this month, it has a plan to address those repairs plus fix what a 2008 independent report on the park called a “powder keg” of complications created by insufficient funding and leadership.

The Balboa Park Task Force – a mayor-appointed group of 17 people representing public and private viewpoints – recommended the city form a 501c3 (non-profit) conservancy in its report, “The Future of Balboa Park: Keeping Balboa Park Magnificent in Its Second Century.” A culmination of three earlier reports, the study began in October and concluded April 19 with a vote to send it to the City Council.

“Considering the city’s limited resources, I’m excited about an entity that is solely focused on improving Balboa Park not just for an individual institution and not just for recreation but the park as a whole,” said District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park. “When you look at it from a fundraising perspective, marketing or capital improvement projects, you will have a board of directors who are passionate about the park all saying, ‘Is this good for the park?’”

It was the inability to answer that question in 2006 that caused Vicki Granowitz, the North Park representative on the Balboa Park Committee, a community planning group, to start asking for conditions reports on the park. Peter Ellsworth, president of the Legler Benbough Foundation, a longtime donor to the park, was seeking the same answers. But there didn’t seem to be any.

“We figured if the foundation people couldn’t get it and the public couldn’t get it with our know-how of working the bureaucracy, that it didn’t exist,” Granowitz said. “We realized there needed to be some kind of study so we could begin to get a handle on what we didn’t know about the park.”

Legler Benbough financed a study that year that compared Balboa Park with five other American urban parks. That account was the catalyst for “The Soul of San Diego,” a report issued in early 2008 that detailed the park’s vast infrastructure needs. The committee then set out during 2008 to examine how the city could better finance and govern the park, concluding in its December 2008 report, “The city has never made Balboa Park a high enough priority.”

It also recommended a further look at how a conservancy could provide that needed oversight. With Granowitz as chair, the Balboa Park Task Force convened a series of public meetings in October to develop criteria for establishing the conservancy.

“If you look at park districts, if you look at joint agreements, all of those still require a non-profit partner if you want to raise funds,” Granowitz said. “So we came away with why don’t you start out with the smallest increment you can and create a new 501c3 for the park?”

Other city parks have been successful with such a conservancy, said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land.

“This is right in line with what is happening all over the country,” he said about the conservancy proposal. “What a park needs is a group of powerful, smart, forward-thinking people that care about the park first.”

Harnik cited Forest Park in St. Louis, Mo., as a fitting comparison to Balboa Park. Although it has only five museums, Forest Park attracts 12 million people annually to its 1293 acres. Forest Park Forever, a conservancy, was established in 1986 to “restore, maintain and sustain” the park, according to its mission statement on forestparkforever.org.

“It took them a few years to sort out the politics, the needs and the issues, but since then it’s been spectacularly successful,” Harnik said.

Forest Park Forever has raised more than $94 million in ten years. In contrast, the Friends of Balboa Park, the Committee of One Hundred and the Balboa Park Trust at the San Diego Foundation – three fundraising organizations devoted exclusively to Balboa Park – have raised less than $10 million in that same period.

Gloria said the lack of public fundraising for Balboa Park has simply been due to the absence of a conservancy-type body to accept the money.

“As a councilmember I hear a number of people say that they have an interest in coming forward to support the park,” he said. “But they need a vehicle by which to do that.”

An important key to that conservancy is the public component, Granowitz said. Unlike the three existing fundraising organizations, the task force’s recommended board will hold public meetings and post its agendas and minutes on its website, all according to Brown Act rules.

“One of the things that’s been really problematic for me is the way the fundraising groups in the park have been operating for a long time. We don’t know what they do – for too long it’s all been a mystery,” Granowitz said.

The arts, science and cultural institutions in the park, who lease their buildings from the city, conduct their own fundraising. The San Diego Natural History Museum took in $4 million in 2009, for example, and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center has raised $14 million toward a $20 million capital campaign.

David Lang, executive director of the Balboa Cultural Partnership, a collaboration of the park’s 24 institutions, said the conservancy could initially weaken fundraising for the individual museums but he expects the overall effect to be positive.

“Some people view potential funding as a limited pie but I think we have an argument to make by a well-functioning cultural partnership and a well-functioning conservancy,” he said. “I think we will be existing as healthy partners, each doing something different but at the same time complementing each other.”

That balance will be critical for Balboa Park to overcome its myriad challenges, Harnik said, not just for fundraising but for all park decisions.

“The institutions within the park are more powerful and have a greater set of supporters than the park itself,” he said. “It’s like filling up a bathtub with a valuable liquid—everybody cares about the park but they care about it after their own institution. No one is looking out for the park first, and that puts it in a risky status.”

The Legler Benbough Foundation, which has been supporting the park since 1985, faces that dilemma annually. Without a managing organization through which it can donate, the foundation has been spreading out $500,000-$750,000 each year among various institutions. Peter Ellsworth said he is eager to see a conservancy that will support the park’s work as a whole.

“We pointed out these problems [in the foundation-funded reports] in hopes of getting some kind of a mechanism [for fundraising],” he said. “This structure provides a potential framework for getting done what we need to get done.”

While private fundraising was a focus of the successive reports, the December 2008 report suggested a potential source of revenue could be county property taxes, citing 45 percent of park visitors are county residents.

Supervisor Ron Roberts, whose District 4 includes the park, said while he is open to hearing ideas for the county’s assistance in the park’s 2015 centennial celebration, he is not willing to pursue additional county funds for the park beyond what the county already provides.

“As a member of the San Diego City Council I voted to raise the hotel tax with an understanding that a half-cent of that money would go to maintain and improve Balboa Park,” he said. “Subsequent councils chose not to honor that agreement. Today, the county is providing general fund grants to Balboa Park’s museums, zoo and for other improvements. It also is important to note that the county and many of the other 17 cities have regional parks that draw visitors from the city of San Diego.”

Perhaps no one in San Diego understands Balboa Park’s woes better than Stacey LoMedico, director of the city’s park and recreation department since 2007. A 16-year veteran of the department – the second-largest system in the country with more than 350 properties – she said the reason most Balboa Park visitors don’t recognize its deficiencies is because park workers are so good at hiding them.

“We have a lot of dedicated city employees who really work to make the park appear beautiful with very limited resources,” she said, pointing out that she disagreed with the December 2008 report’s assertion that the city hasn’t made the park a priority. “I think Balboa Park right now as it exists in terms of management and operations is the best we have the ability to do. The city has continued to fund its general fund obligations [to the park]. It just hasn’t had the money to put in to deferred maintenance, and if you don’t fund maintenance the list keeps growing. It’s a catch-up game that you can’t catch up.”

Some of the items the park needs, she said, include new building roofs, better lot paving and air conditioning systems in older buildings. A dedicated park director – something she said has never existed to her knowledge – is not in the budget.

“There’s only so much you can do in terms of balancing the park system with the limited amount of money you have,” she said.

LoMedico admitted she was initially uncertain about the Balboa Park Task Force’s recommendations but as the group developed the conservancy argument she became convinced it is the best way to secure the park’s future.

“We’re just stewards of the park. It’s not our park. We just have to implement the policies and procedures but that’s based on what the citizen wants to see,” she said.

The task force’s report likely will be on the City Council’s Rules Committee agenda for May, Granowitz said. She said a preliminary organizing committee will convert to a conservancy board of directors once its 501c3 status is granted, and she hoped the City Council would approve a Memo of Understanding between the city and the 501c3 within three to six months.

“This [conservancy] will give the public a voice they’ve never had,” she said.

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