By David Lundin
Plans for the Balboa Park Centennial in 2015 are non-existent. The Official Centennial management entity, Balboa Park Celebration, Inc. [“BPCI”], is closing its doors and transferring all its powers and obligations to the City.
More than three million dollars in public funds and donations have been spent on inflated salaries, consultant’s fees, payments to Board member’s friends, and other expenses having little if any salvage value. Time, credibility and opportunity have all been irrevocably lost.
What went wrong ? How could this major debacle for the City and Balboa Park have been prevented ? The story for most total failures begins at the beginning. This is no exception. In a perfect world, or at least one better than San Diego, what should have happened ?
The central 1915 Exhibition Park is the historic core of the 20th Century City. Imagined, funded, designed and built when San Diego had a total population of less than 50,000 people. Opened on New Year’s Eve, 1914, it was a great success for the City and its future. In the following years the Park saw two World Wars, the loss of some of the original structures to “condemnation by neglect”, the loving restoration of others more fortunate, and great controversy over automobile traffic and parking garages.
How best to observe the 100th Birthday of this great historic treasure? Perhaps by first asking what had other cities done to mark the centennials of their great city parks? New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s lake-front Grant Park would have been perfect lessons.
Central Park observed the centennial of the great Fredrick Law Olmsted landscape construction in 1973. Not with a grand, year-long party, but with the honest recognition that Central Park had become a “dustbowl by day, and a danger zone by night.” The City undertook a very public process to ensure that sad state of affairs would change permanently. Ultimately a single, competent person was put in charge of the Park and The Central Park Conservancy was created.
The Conservancy, a public, transparent and very prominent part of New York, now raises more than eighty percent of all construction and maintenance costs for Central Park from private donors and endowment funds. The Park is again the jewel of the City. The Centennial of Central Park was not observed by any costly, year-long public party, but by the thoughtful creation of structural changes in control, governance and fund-raising that would ensure the next one hundred years of the Park and more.
Chicago’s magnificent lake-front Grant Park observed its Centennial on July 18, 2010 with a one-day, family style City Picnic. 2010 also saw the continuation of some major “legacy” projects in Grant Park of restoration of existing improvements and the creation of new ones to complement that great public space.
San Diego learned nothing from the New York and Chicago examples, because no one ever asked about them. San Diego has a wonderful history museum, the San Diego History Center. We have the Committee of 100, a talented and knowledgeable group, who attempt to safeguard and improve the Park. We are blessed with SOHO. We also have the Internet and high-speed connections.
From what was determined from extensive review of BPCI documents and interviews with former BPCI Board members, no one bothered to ask what had other cities done. No one cared.
This brings us to the second critical question that should have been answered, but was never asked. How should the City best structure and staff the organization, planning and operations for the Centennial ?
This critical issue was never part of a contemplative, public discussion and debate. Instead, former Mayor Jerry Sanders, in an angry huff after losing the legal battle over his beloved Jacobs Plan for a freeway-like bypass bridge and massive parking garage in the core of the Park, created the concept of what became BPCI. Sanders had lost the Jacobs Plan battle because he and the City had been found by the Court to have violated the City’s own Historic Preservation Ordinance. That should have been a warning flag of bad things to come.
BPCI was intentionally structured as a private corporation, not as a public extension of City governance. The initial Board members were appointed by Sanders, and were largely vocal supporters of the Jacobs Plan and political allies of Sanders. The deliberations and finances of BPCI were intended to be private by design.
The first salaried employee of BPCI was Gerry Braun, former Sanders’ Administration Director of Special Projects for the Mayor, and lead spokesperson advocating the merits of the Jacobs Plan. No historians or opponents of the Jacobs Plan were asked to serve on the BPCI Board.
Primary funding for the Centennial and BPCI was to come from hotel taxes, to be approved on applications to the Tourist Marketing District [“TMD”] Board, composed of hotel owners and management employees. This funding dictated the direction BPCI planning would take. By law, TMD funds cannot be used for infrastructure construction, improvement or maintenance. They can be used only for planning, marketing, promotion and direct costs of events designed to generate hotel occupancy.
This primary funding source dictated that no contemplation would be given to “legacy” improvements to the Park. The focus would be to create a series of costly, Disney-like events to fill hotel beds.
BPCI’s management choices also dictated policy. BPCI’s first CEO was Mark Germyn, experienced in trade shows and international fairs. Not an historian, and no experience in significant private fund-raising. He resigned after less than one year on the job. He now works for LegoLand outside of the United States.
After a few weeks of a sham “search and evaluation” process, the BPCI Board selected its second CEO, Michael McDowell. McDowell was already a Board member of BPCI, a senior management employee of San Diego’s own Atlas Hotels in Mission Valley, and had been a very active and vocal supporter of the Jacobs Plan and Mayor Sanders. He resigned after less than a year on the job.
He was replaced by BPCI Board member and attorney Julie Dubick, former Chief of Staff of former Mayor Sanders. Dubick resigned as CEO in February of 2014 after an embarrassing appearance before the TMD Board and demands for BPCI Public Records had been made. Since her sudden resignation, she has refused all questions and requests for press interviews.
Amidst all this disarray there remained one constant. Sanders’ former senior aid, Gerry Braun, continued to head all Public Relations and marketing efforts. PR director Braun has been promoted to CEO by the BPCI Board at an undisclosed salary. Before his promotion he was making $8,000.00 a month for not more than 20 hours of work per week as a part-time consultant.
As public relations director and CEO of BPCI, Braun has refused to answer questions from the public, and has refused all requests for an open press conference.
Details of the BPCI fiscal shenanigans will be revealed elsewhere. And those should properly get a full and very public airing. However, the more important lessons to be learned from this tragedy are simple. First, don’t ignore history. Second, never forget governmental incompetence and wrongdoings are made more difficult by structurally ensuring transparency, accountability and active public participation in the decision-making process.
Those who forget these lessons are doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The City, Mayor Sanders, the City Council and City Attorney all have their full shares of blame for this costly debacle. But the voters must remember these lessons to ensure these costly errors are never repeated.
David Lundin is the President/Creative Director at Son Appareil Photography, and has filed numerous California Public Records Act requests seeking release of information about BPCI