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This is a series of 12 stories you should pay attention to in 2012. Here was No. 12: the Chargers; No. 11: the Convention Center; No. 10: The city of San Diego’s financial problems; No. 9: the San Diego Police Department; and No. 8: affordable housing.

A few weeks ago, Mark Germyn just quit. Citing family reasons, the man brought on to lead the planning for a massive 2015 celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Balboa Park’s Panama-California Exposition, was gone.

“It shot us in the foot,” said Ben Clay, the co-chairman of the committee in charge. “We’re two-and-a-half months behind.”

Clay and his counterparts have secured Germyn’s replacement, though: Hotel powerbroker extraordinaire Mike McDowell is the new CEO.

Where Germyn was an outsider, struggling to understand San Diego’s politics, McDowell is the ultimate insider. McDowell, in fact, is one of the main reasons the city even has a potential funding source for the 2015 effort. Put simply, he gets things done.

It was McDowell who several years ago recognized that the struggling city of San Diego would likely not be involved in funding the Convention and Visitors Bureau in the future. In one of the most deft city policy achievements of the last decade, McDowell methodically cobbled together a novel new system: All of the city’s large hotels formed a type of business improvement district and they together passed a 2 percent tax hike on hotel rooms while also overseeing how that money is spent.

It’s now been replicated across the state.

Voters had twice rejected hotel-room tax increases in 2004, one of which McDowell had put his heart into passing. That failure has shaped his approach since then.

ConVis now has more money than it ever dreamed of before.

That levy, administered through the Tourism Marketing District, is also set up as one of the three sources of revenue for the 2015 celebration. It will pay for one-third of the festivities. The city will fork over another third and McDowell will look to philanthropists for the rest.

Ah, philanthropists. The city has decided that the magnificent park’s future is up to them and up to what they’re able to persuade the public to do (or vice versa).

Just more than a year ago, I wrote that Balboa Park was at a crossroads.

It still is. The argument about which way to go has reached a fever pitch.

Like a year ago, three main groups are working to lead Balboa Park. The first is that host committee of the centennial celebration. The second is the Balboa Park Conservancy, which for more than a year now has been trying to get its own footing.

The third is the Plaza de Panama Committee, organized by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs.

All three will be in a much different place a year from now, as could be the park itself. Let’s look at each with an eye toward what you should pay attention to this year.

I. The Plaza de Panama: The discussion about Jacobs’ proposal to take the cars out of the park’s heart is best understood as the type of talk that would precede a major surgery.

Nobody is against the goal: Making the Plaza de Panama a pedestrian area. Jacobs’ plan would reroute traffic coming east into the park over the Cabrillo Bridge over a ramp and then into a paid parking garage.

Why call it a surgery? Opponents of the plan seem to be most passionate when they talk about the intrusion and displacement that has to occur to build it. The digging, the trenches, the retaining walls that will be part of it all — that’s what gets them. In other words, we’re watching an argument like people might have if a loved one was considering major, optional surgery. Is it worth the risk? It will hurt. Isn’t there a better solution?

Do we really have to cut? Well, here’s the vision of what it will look like post-surgery.

Now the draft environmental impact report is out. And it’s a doozy. It’s 4,000 pages of analysis of impacts, several alternatives and the kind of mind-numbing prose only engineers are capable of writing.

But it’s nothing if not thorough. Here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. It will be open for discussion until March 8. Some of the alternatives are intriguing. There are four alternatives in fact where the Cabrillo Bridge itself is closed to automobiles as well as the Plaza de Panama.

In coming months, we’ll know whether the plan lives or dies. As with a major surgery, city leaders and Jacobs should expect some hesitation and hostility from a community that loves its park so much. And as with a surgery, they’ll have to make the case that it’s worth it.

Supporters of the plan hope to start construction by October 2012. But they face four crucial votes before even getting the project to the City Council again: the Balboa Park Committee, the Park & Recreation Board, the Historical Resources Board and the Planning Commission. Those committees will discuss the project starting, likely, in May.

If they want to get it done in time for the 2015 celebration, this will all have to happen soon.

II. 2015: For months now, the committee planning the 2015 celebration has gathered people together in roundtables to discuss what exactly this festival will be like (disclosure: I got to go to one). Ben Clay told me it was an open question: “When San Diegans feel like they’re being force fed something, they don’t like it so much.”

So look for unprecedented public outreach in April, he said. The question is simple but ambitious: How do we showcase all of the unique things San Diego does?

The best idea I heard was from Richard Kiy, the CEO of the International Community Foundation. He’d like to set up a binational Ironman Triathlon. You’d swim to the border, bike in Mexico and run to a dramatic finish in Balboa Park. It would showcase our impressive fitness and activity industry. What’s your idea? What would you showcase?

III. The Conservancy: Modeled after the Central Park Conservancy in New York, this group of philanthropic leaders wants to fund the park’s future. The mayor has fully admitted the city won’t be able to pay for the park’s many needs. Some of these needs are huge: Are we really going to leave a big swath of it as an unusable garbage dump (the Arizona Landfill)?

If voluntary donations are a big part of the future, the park is not ready to solicit and process them.

But the conservancy’s leaders will object quickly if you suggest it will take over management of the park.

One of its first priorities will be to raise money for the 2015 celebration. Remember, one-third of that festival’s funding will come from donors. Watch for them to come to a formal agreement with the city about what their role will be in the coming year.

All of this represents one of the most methodical and concerted efforts at major change I’ve ever witnessed in this city. If it comes together, this year will shape the park, and our city, for generations to come.

Disclosure: Jacobs and many of the foundations and donors supporting the 2015 project, the Plaza de Panama effort and the Conservancy are major supporters of voiceofsandiego.org.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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