Balboa Park rescues itself from doomed centennial celebration
This year’s 100th anniversary of Balboa Park had been highly anticipated by city leaders and residents. A major celebration was planned in 2011 with a $2.9 million budget.
But the centennial is here and the original plans for an elaborate yearlong event are nowhere to be found. The group that was formed and hired to plan the celebration, Balboa Park Celebration, Inc. has disbanded due to frivolous spending and poor city supervision.
With millions of dollars and three years of planning wasted, Balboa Park staff and volunteers were given nine months to organize the celebration. Against all odds, the park succeeded with a modest interpretation of BPCI’s original pricy plans.
Michael Ruiz, Balboa Park district manager, says he believes this year will be an opportunity for San Diegans to rediscover or discover for the first time all the wonderful and unique things the park has to offer.
The comeback of a century
Mayor Kevin Faulconer released a statement in 2014 that said the city planned to move forward with a more practical and realistic celebration than his predecessor, Bob Filner, had envisioned.
Organizers decided to humble their vision and focus on enhancing the attractions already at the park.
These new, realistic goals included:
- Retrofitting the Cabrillo Bridge
- Developing an extensive Wi-Fi network,
- Re-opening the California Tower.
- Installing energy efficient light fixtures
- Remodeling the Plaza de Panama
- Restoring the Botanical Building
Caltrans and the city collaborated on a $38 million project to refurbish the Cabrillo Bridge. In five months, construction workers seismically retrofitted the bridge and installed exterior lighting.
A $1 million technology grant from the James Irvine Foundation helped create one of the fastest free public Wi-Fi spots on the West Coast.
In 2014, the city granted permits to The Museum of Man to make renovations to the California Tower. The iconic structure had stood untouched since 1935. With a diminished budget, the museum looked to the public for funding. It sold naming rights to each of the 76 steps in the tower (for $5,000 each), the 20 benches (for $20,000 each), and memberships to the “Tower Society” ($50,000 to $1 million). The tower is now open for public tours.
In addition to foundational improvements, the museums and cultural centers planned dynamic events unlike any others the park has held. .
The Spanish Village Arts Center planned its own year-long schedule of events, which include monthly featured art workshops, a French art exhibition and a polymer clay exhibit with crafts for charity.
Kathi Vargo, president of the Spanish Village Art Center, said even though the center is only 80 years old, they are celebrating as if they’re 100.
VIDEO: The Spanish Village Arts Center feautures hundreds of artists who have come together to honor the centennial. The local artists have planned events throughout the year.
The Museum of Photographic Arts, is also commemorating with an exhibition that features photos from the original Exposition.
Deborah Klochko, executive director of the Museum of Photographic Arts, says her goal is to remind people of how fabulous the park is and to make it a dynamic and vibrant place for years to come.
Another way the park is hosting a low-budget celebration is by honoring the past in a modern way.
The My Balboa Park Wedding Contest is a competition between couples who have been wed in the park.
SLIDESHOW: The Balboa Park Wedding Contest is taking wedding photos from the past 100 years and choosing one winner. One local man is entering his parents’ photos in remembrance of them.
What went wrong
Initially, BPCI consulted an event company from Los Angeles, Autonomy, to create a vision for the celebration. The group paid them $467,000 and fired them eight months later for not creating the right vision. It also hired Loma Media Partners for $463,766 to create promotional videos that featured former Mayor Bob Filner.
Other expenses included member salary and travel costs. The former CEO of BPCI, Julie Dubick, received $15,000 a month plus benefits. Officials from the group also took a trip to Panama to meet with business leaders to explore partnerships. No deals were ever announced.
Kathy Esty, a Balboa Park volunteer and San Diego Floral Association member, says all of the museums in the park were mad about the group’s performance.
“The city hired a marketing firm which wasted money on videos and salaries before ever asking the question of how to make the Balboa Park Centennial the biggest event in the past 100 years,” Esty said.
External forces also affected planning. Filner, who was the mayor at the time, envisioned a $50 million world-class event, rejected theme propositions and had to be cut out of promotional videos when his sexual harassment scandal surfaced.
Due to the political turmoil surrounding Filner, BPCI didn’t receive much time or cooperation from the city.
The group voted in March 2014 to disband and handed the project back to the city, with less than $600,000 left in the budget. Mayor Faulconer and City Council President Todd Gloria gave the responsibility of planning to the park. The place where some believed it belonged all along.
“Their plan should have been a slam dunk, but of course, it was just a way for some to make money,” said Esty.
Balboa Park has a unique history and has one hundred years of culture behind it.
The Park was born In the early 1900’s as part of a world Exposition to celebrate the Panama-California Exposition.
Balboa Park, then known as “City Park”, was chosen as the landscape to host it. With 1,400 acres of open space to build on, planners had their work cut out for them. Construction began on The California Tower, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Cabrillo Bridge and San Diego Museum of Man, all of which are still standing today.