Reader DW sent this question:

Which individuals and organizations are really behind the proposal to privatize operations of Balboa Park. What are their motives and what are their real goals? Is this another effort by park tenant organizations to get control over more areas of the park so they can fence them off and make the public pay to access its own public parkland?

DW refers to recent talk of turning over some responsibility for funding Balboa Park, along with some control, to a private foundation. (We broke the story last month.)

In an editorial, the Union-Tribune called the proposal a “bold solution” for Balboa Park’s deferred-maintenance woes, but DW is more skeptical.

To answer the first question, the idea of “privatizing” – or outsourcing – some oversight of the park was first floated by the Legler Benbough Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides philanthropic support to some of Balboa Park’s cultural institutions. Earlier this year, the Benbough Foundation contracted with a Trust for Public Lands to study ways other major parks have used private trusts, and how such a model could work for Balboa Park.

While we can only speculate about the foundation’s “real goals,” its stated motive is to help the city find a way to pay for some of the estimated $250 million in needed maintenance. Or so the foundation’s president, Peter Ellsworth, told me:

We felt that because of the well-publicized financial condition of the city, it was important for us to take a look at the financial underpinnings of the park as part of us taking a look at the future of what we want to fund.

The last question is trickier. Under the vision presented in the Benbough report, the park’s tenants, and the philanthropic groups that fund them, would be involved in managing the trust that would oversee Balboa Park. It also envisioned that the City Council would have final say over any major projects and policy changes. However, all of that is mere chin-scratching, because no one has yet offered a concrete proposal for how a handover could take place. The Benbough Foundation offered to pay for a blue-ribbon commission to create one, but the city never applied for the funding.

Looking at the five other parks included in the Benbough report, there seems to be great variation in how much real control municipalities cede to their private partners. That issue will surely be a major point of contention about any plan to change control of the park – if one ever materializes.

VLADIMIR KOGAN

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