The 2015 Balboa Park Centennial celebration could've been good. Scratch that. It could've been great. Next year's party was going to be a yearlong, multimillion-dollar citywide event that would go down in history as one of the city's proudest moments. As originally envisioned, San Diego was on course to put on quite a show. It was to be an event impressive enough to pay proper homage to the significance of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the city's first international fair that helped create the Balboa Park of today.
But that wasn't in the cards for San Diego, a city that seems to constantly be trying to dig itself out of political turmoil. When news broke early in March that Balboa Park Celebration Inc. (BPCI), the nonprofit group charged with organizing the centennial, was disbanding and handing the reins to the city, the typical reaction was that we'll ultimately get a watered-down event. A recent opinion piece in U-T San Diego starts with the jarring line, "Plans for the Balboa Park Centennial in 2015 are dead."
However, significant centennial-celebration programming is alive and well. While the original grand vision is out of reach, 15 park institutions have announced their plans for 2015. Nine local arts organizations were awarded grants from the city's Commission for Arts and Culture for Balboa Park centennial projects that are moving forward. And dozens of plans for special events and happenings inside Balboa Park in 2015 were solicited by BPCI prior to its dissolution and are currently in various stages of development. Those plans could feasibly move ahead, depending on the city's next moves.
According to documents provided to CityBeat by BPCI, more than two dozen community groups and other organizations were in the midst of developing programming for the centennial—a fact CityBeat confirmed by checking in with almost all of the listed entities. Some of the plans were mere conversations or inklings of ideas, left in nascent stages of development before BPCI's collapse, while others were far enough into development that the organizing entities are moving ahead, whether the city allows their events to be held inside Balboa Park or not.
BPCI made mistakes and failed to work with community groups quickly and effectively enough to craft a vision that potential corporate sponsors and donors wanted to support. It was unable to raise funding for an event that, at one time, former Mayor Bob Filner estimated would cost around $40 million.
Representatives of groups that worked with BPCI told CityBeat that outreach and cooperation fell short. While a few community groups and arts organizations that proposed events had nice things to say about their interactions with BPCI, others described their encounters as confusing, frustrating and noncommittal. But despite the issues, BPCI did get some interesting ideas and potential events in the pipeline.
"The city has asked us to help make sure that none of these groups get lost in the transition," says Gerry Braun, BPCI's transition director.
The city has announced that Carolyn Wormser, director of special events, will lead the planning efforts. While Mayor Kevin Faulconer is on the record only as saying the city intends "to move forward with a more practical and realistic celebration," City Council President Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park, was willing to share more of the city's current vision.
"It's not going to be the extravaganza that had been previously envisioned," Gloria says. "But I think there will be opportunities for new programming and signature events. A lot of that will depend on funding."
Gloria says he's aware of the ideas and events BPCI had in the works, but he wasn't ready to commit to anything moving forward. He did say that attempts would be made to keep organizing entities "in the fold."
"We're going to lean heavily on the cultural institutions that have already planned their own programming," Gloria says.
Reading through a report given to the BPCI board of directors in January, it's easy to imagine the type of event the yearlong celebration could have been—and could potentially still become.
According to the document, BPCI invited ArtWalk San Diego to move the huge annual arts event to Balboa Park for 2015. Partially because heavy construction is planned in Little Italy next year, Sandi Cottrell, ArtWalk's executive director, says she's still somewhat receptive to the idea.
"We're open to continuing the conversation," Cottrell says. "Whether or not we could even make it fit logistically is still a big question mark."
Ann Berchtold, director of the annual Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair, has joined forces with her husband David Malmuth and Pete Garcia of the development company I.D.E.A. District in proposing an 11-day event, with Balboa Park as the hub, that would include the art fair, potentially the San Diego City College Book Fair and showcase events for San Diego's students, innovators, entrepreneurs and makers.
"We thought it would have been really cool, and we thought we had a lot of support," Berchtold says. "We still may."
She says she's hopeful that the city will pick up where BPCI left off. But, the group's 17-page proposal to BPCI includes a request for initial funding of $100,000 with a promise to independently raise the rest of the projected $1.4 million in expenses. Many of the other ideas and proposals submitted to BPCI included similar requests for funding.
Real-estate developer Sandy Shapery was in the middle of contract negotiations with BPCI when the group voted to disband. Shapery's behind the well-publicized push to bring back "electriquettes," or motorized wicker carts widely used during San Diego's 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The carts would be a fun way for folks to explore the park, says Shapery, who also envisions having dignitaries participate in whimsical electriquette races (the carts don't surpass speeds of 4 mph).
"I certainly hope it still happens," Shapery says, when asked if a fleet of new electriquettes will be buzzing around Balboa Park in 2015. "It's just a challenge getting it over the finish line."
Shapery says he's been asking for a long-term contract with the city since he'll need to recoup costs.
"Our program has really been set back as a result of the committee disbanding," Shapery says. "I think there's a better opportunity it will happen now [that the celebration is being organized by the city]... but I've heard nothing from the city, and we're running at a critical time crunch because, to build these things in time, we needed to start [manufacturing the carts] about two months ago."
The San Diego Filipino-American community came together in a big way to propose an event to BPCI. Ten Filipino community groups joined forces and submitted a proposal describing a Filipino Independence Day event inside the park in June.
"We're actually excited," says Anamaria Lebao Cabato, executive director of Pasacat Philippine Performing Arts Company, one of the groups behind the event. "This is something unprecedented for our community to collaborate in this way, and we want to show what we have to offer."
Cabato says she's confident the city will include their event as part of the official celebration.
At one point, BPCI was in negotiations with San Diego Opera—which last week announced it would close after this year's season to avoid bankruptcy—to put on a free version of La Bohéme at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. According to BPCI documents, those talks eventually fell through, but BPCI was also working with Opera Neo, a relatively new, youth-oriented opera group, on offering free opera, too.
"It's a very fluid situation, so I'm not really sure what's going to happen yet," said Opera Neo artistic director Peter Kozma. "We would like to add what we can offer to the celebration, as well."
A group called Maataam Nakashin, formed by the Intertribal Centennial Committee made up of representatives from regional Native American tribes, worked with BPCI and has already printed brochures featuring their tentative schedule of centennial events intended to happen inside Balboa Park.
"We're going to do everything we can to not get lost in the shuffle, but I don't foresee any problems," says Michael Connolly Miskwish, Maataam Nakashinís project manager. "We're going to do the best we can to communicate and try to do the best we can for the city and the park."
Other event ideas include a bigger Moon Festival put on by the House of China, one of the International Cottages inside Balboa Park; large-scale choral events in which audiences are invited to participate, organized by the Choral Consortium of San Diego; and outdoor movie screenings presented by the San Diego Asian Film Festival, put on by Pacific Arts Movement.
Programming already planned independently of BPCI by Balboa Park organizations and nonprofit groups awarded centennial-project grants are ambitious. The Museum of Man's Border Crossing program will transform the trails and canyons of Balboa Park into an immersive experience meant to replicate the journey of undocumented immigrants crossing the border. Mainly Mozart will present a concert transmitted live onto giant screens simultaneously broadcast in Balboa Park and Tijuana while amateur musicians in the audience are invited to join in live. And the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego History Center and others have timely, interesting exhibitions scheduled.
"I think lots of good things are going to come out of this, actually," says Sue Varga, director of marketing for Balboa Park Central. "I think it's disappointing in a lot of ways that it didn't go the way it was planned, but I think we're going to have plenty of spectacular things to do here."