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by Angela Carone | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource
After three years in operation, the nonprofit charged with planning a year-long extravaganza to mark the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park is out of business. It spent $2.6 million in taxpayer funds with little to show but a stack of bills from consultants.
While questions about just what went wrong continue to swirl, the people who ran Balboa Park Centennial Inc. apologized to the public in an exclusive interview with KPBS.
Nikki Clay, co-chair with her husband, Ben, of the centennial committee, said the couple “especially want to apologize.”
“We could not feel worse about having this not work,” she said. “We kept thinking one more phone call, one more meeting, would turn that tide.”
Clay and two other board members agreed to talk about their experiences and to respond to a firestorm of criticism from members of the public, museum directors and other stakeholders who say they were left out of the planning process.
The committee and staff were downtown insiders, critics say, an insular group that lacked the leadership and fundraising skills to pull off an event of this scale.
The committee spent too much time outsourcing a “vision,” they said, and not enough time building a coalition among those who could actually make the event happen.
For the committee’s part, its members blame inadequate funding, turmoil at San Diego City Hall and an overbearing former Mayor Bob Filner for the failure.
KPBS interviewed or reached out to more than 30 people on the inside and the outside of the Balboa Park celebration to find out what happened and to ask: Can a celebration – with 2015 right around the corner – be salvaged?
The story starts with one man’s dream of turning back the clock to 1915 and filling the park with the charm of the Electriquette.
Projects for event go nowhere or get rejected
The wicker-covered battery-powered carts were “classy, comfortable, and luxurious,” according to a 1915 advertisement. And they seemed like a great thing to reintroduce at a centennial celebration.
Tooling at 3 mph, they ruled the roads in Balboa Park during the 1915 exposition.
These Electriquettes were the only “transportation” permitted on exposition grounds. They were a hit. Two million visitors came to the exposition that year, descending on a city of only 40,000.
In 2011, San Diego developer Sandy Shapery decided to launch a fleet of Electriquettes as part of the centennial celebration.
He had a prototype built and went to China to oversee production. Shapery paid for it all himself.
He presented his idea to the Balboa Park Centennial committee members, and everyone seemed on board.
But then nothing happened.
“So here we are with a fun little project everyone loves, but we can’t get enough traction to get this thing going,” said Shapery.
Just like with the Electriquettes, critics say, the centennial committee has left a trail of lost opportunities. Fits and starts.
John Wilson, director of the Timken Museum of Art, shook his head in frustration as he talked about a project he headed to bring contemporary artwork to the park during the celebration. It was an information center designed by internationally acclaimed artist Mark Dion.
It had seed money, parkwide support, and an artist with an international art tourism draw.
But Wilson said the BPCI members were worried the Dion project would hurt their own funding efforts, even though his team was going to raise money from international funders such as Switzerland’s UBS, known for sponsoring art exhibits at the Venice Biennale and Miami’s Art Basel.
Wilson needed BPCI to endorse the project to move forward. He didn’t get it.
“There was just total negativity,” he said of his meeting with Julie Dubick, the centennial group’s most recent CEO. “There was a demonstrable negativity on the part of BPCI for any art project that was a collaborative venture by all the institutions in the park.”
From all accounts, BPCI didn’t start out that way.
Public asked to brainstorm ideas for centennial celebration
In 2011, BPCI held brainstorming forums with corporate executives, civic leaders, members of high tech, and academics.
Ideas and networking opportunities for 2015 flourished at those meetings, said Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor for public programs and dean of the extension at the University of California, San Diego.
But that’s where it ended, she said.
“Thank you notes were sent, and that’s it,” said Walshok, who attended one of the half-day events. “Nobody heard anything from anyone again.”
Some of those participants – innovators from the Torrey Pines Mesa – should have been invited onto BPCI’s board, she said. The board would have benefited, Walshok believes, from a broader point of view.
The centennial committee was working with consultants such as Autonomy, an event production company based in Los Angeles, to develop an overall vision for the event. BPCI paid the company $467,000 and replaced it after eight months.
BPCI members say they needed a vision plan before they could go to funders to raise money.
And they needed money, especially for infrastructure, including staging, lighting and bathrooms, before they could fill the events calendar or make promises to local groups.
In 2012, BPCI announced a theme for the centennial: “Edge2015.” It didn’t last long. Filner, the incoming mayor, didn’t like it.
Filner wanted a “$30 to $50 million world-class event” that would bring “heads of state” to San Diego, Clay said.
Loma Media Partners, a consulting group paid $463,766 for its services, created promotional videos that featured Filner. Those had to be re-cut when he resigned.
Because of the political tumult, including losing two CEOs in two years, BPCI didn’t start fundraising until after last Labor Day, which board members admit was too late. “It should have started in January 2013,” Clay said.
Once it did start, it was very tough going.
BPCI board member Stephen Russell said the failure of the “Jacobs plan” for Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama poisoned the funding well. The San Diego City Council approved Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs’ elaborate plan to remove parking from the heart of the park, but a judge struck down it down as contrary to city code.
“The way that played out left such bitter feelings,” said Russell. “A lot of the corporate heads were really kind of shy about funding at that point.”
Those familiar with situation said BPCI didn’t reach out to enough corporate funders, and when they did it was handled poorly.
Developer Shapery said many of his friends who lead corporations were never contacted by centennial committee members.
Walshok said, “In fundraising, they had a tendency to take the moral high ground – saying you owe this to the city – instead of finding points of convergence and interest for donors.”
“You can shame people into giving money for things like the homeless,” she said, “You can’t shame them into funding a light show.” (Walshok was referring to BPCI’s plans for an elaborate light show that included video projections on buildings.)
Clay believes the committee made tactical errors.
“I think we ran into problems in not talking to the foundation side of those businesses,” she said. “We were talking to the shareholder side, so they needed to show a return on investment.”
Russell said all the planning the committee did became useless when the funds didn’t materialize.
“If a client (the city) came to you and said we want you to build a palace and you designed a palace and then we find we have funding for a cottage, most of what you’ve done doesn’t apply,” said Russell.
Obtaining funding became the committee’s priority
Developing an overall plan and securing funding were the priorities BPCI board members set for themselves and the staff.
That meant putting stakeholder and volunteer relationships on hold, including those with museum leaders, who felt left out of the planning process.
“We always felt that they had their own agenda,” said Wilson, of the Timken Museum. “It seemed they wanted to do something outside of the institutions and not use us and our expertise.”
During an interview on KPBS Midday Edition, BPCI transition director Gerry Braun suggested there was tension between competing groups in the park.
“There is no square foot in Balboa Park that doesn’t have a constituency … and whatever we wanted to do in the park meant that somebody else might not do what they wanted,” said Braun.
But there is evidence the institutional leaders in the park do collaborate. The new Balboa Park Explorer pass is an example, said Peter Comiskey, executive director of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership.
The pass allows year-long admission to 17 museums. “Many places I’ve worked before, it would have been impossible to make this happen with this many institutions,” said Comiskey.
BPCI members say they kept the museums in the loop. Comiskey served as an adviser to the centennial committee. Mick Hager, CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum, sat on the BPCI board.
The committee also gave seed money to nine museums for 2015 programming.
But critics say that wasn’t enough. Over time, BPCI grew more secretive and guarded.
“The planning process was completely opaque,” said Nancy Carol Carter, a longtime volunteer in the park.
Walshok said, “They operated as lone rangers.”
Event planning experts say building strong relationships with stakeholders and volunteers is crucial.
“You look at the Rose Parade, which is really the model for something like this, and even though it’s an annual event, it attracts over 700,000 people every year,” said Todd Uglow, an event planning adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s almost entirely community and volunteer based.”
December Nights in Balboa Park, which is now in its 37th year, relies on thousands of volunteers. Their investment is cultivated by Allison Rynne, who has served as an event planning consultant for December Nights for eight years.
“It’s absolutely about coalition building,” said Rynne, who fosters those relationships year round, from high-profile directors of institutions to the modest Swedish Women’s Education Association.
BPCI did not have a volunteer recruitment and development committee.
“We didn’t want to engage volunteers until we had something for them to do,” said centennial committee board member Patti Roscoe.
Committee members were confident, Braun said, that when the time came, they could mobilize volunteers quickly.
What next year’s celebration will look like still uncertain
With the right leadership, Timken’s Wilson thinks a big year-long celebration could have worked, especially if it capitalized on all the groups in the park, from the bikers in the velodrome, to the clog dancers, to the canyoneers.
He rattled off a list of ideas. “Let’s have the world championship track bike racing here in 2015. Let’s have the world lawn bowling championship here. Let’s try to make sure all the art museums can do an all-embracing example of what art was at the time.”
The 1915 exposition was a pivotal event in San Diego history. The outcome was the Balboa Park we know today, but the exposition was designed to show the capacity of the region to the rest of the country.
Walshok, who has written a book about innovation in San Diego, said the same could have been true of the 2015 celebration.
“A lot of people in global companies saw an opportunity to tell a bigger story about our region,” she said. But instead, Walshok said, the committee treated the event like “a Holiday Bowl.”
Walshok said she doesn’t doubt the integrity and hard work of BPCI’s committee members. The “point of view” she said, was the problem.
“I really think its important to point out that the board of directors is made up of volunteers, people in the community who have different strengths,” said centennial committee member Roscoe. “We all came together with the absolute best intentions to make this a success.”
“I’ve been in events my whole life and I’ve never had a failure,” she added. “This is stunning for all of us that this could have happened.”
When BPCI disbanded, planning was turned over to the city.
Mayor Kevin Falconer said in a statement he plans to work with City Council President Todd Gloria “to move forward with a more practical and realistic celebration.”
With less the 10 months to plan, museum leaders said the city should focus on the museums and groups that have 2015 programming ready to go.
Any additional money, they said, should go toward marketing those events.
They want the city, as it makes plans for the 2015 celebration, to avoid the mistakes they believe BPCI made.
“I want to see a more inclusive environment provided to those leaders that can make things happen,” said Jim Kidrick, president and CEO of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. “Because it’s not about politics any more.”
“I can tell you we will get it done,” said Kidrick. “We’re going to stage a 2015 celebration that our community is going to be proud of.”
As for the Electriquettes, Sandy Shapery is still hopeful he can build a fleet for 2015.
On a recent sunny afternoon, he drove one down Balboa Park’s main promenade. Kids waved, people smiled.
Two amused park security guards pulled up in their golf cart and asked about the Electriquette. Shapery said he hoped to have them for the celebration next year. Of course, it’s all up in the air now because of the change in planning, he added.
At that, they shook their heads.
One of them said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to do this celebration on our own.”
This story was edited by Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of inewsource, a KPBS media partner.