On a hot, sunny day in September 2010, Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Todd Gloria unveiled the Balboa Park Conservancy, and touted it as a savior group that would match high-level donors with some of Balboa Park’s most long-awaited features.

The nonprofit was envisioned in the mold of the bodies that have guarded and enhanced Central Park in New York City and other urban parks around the country.

It would be “ultimately assuming the lead role as the city’s partner in planning, fundraising and governance in Balboa Park,” Gloria said.

But things got complicated almost immediately.

Two years later, the group has yet to fully realize the special relationship it was supposed to have with the city.

Other projects have sucked up the spotlight, like the Plaza de Panama plan to remodel the park’s western entrance, and the efforts to party-plan for the 100-year anniversary of the park’s 1915 exposition, coming in 2015. The plaza plan was an example of wedding philanthropy to a city need, and the conservancy supported it, even though two board members resigned in the process. And 2015 represents the kind of major project where available city money won’t cut it.

Various studies have pegged Balboa Park’s needs north of $200 million, money the city doesn’t have. City leaders expect San Diegans would pitch in for the park if they could trust the money would be spent well, and if it didn’t involve writing a check to the city of San Diego.

The need is inseparable from Balboa Park’s long history of controversies and major land-use changes, which we’ve been unraveling in a series of posts. After three decades of energy spent on plans that basically sit on shelves, the conservancy was seen as a potential instigator that could finally get something done. So far, it doesn’t have much to show for itself. Even its own members acknowledge progress has come more slowly than they expected.

“Everything hit at once,” said Carol Chang, president of the conservancy’s board. The conservancy, she said, is “the least urgent” of the major park projects under way.

There were already lots of nonprofit organizations dedicated to the park, including fundraising groups like the Friends of Balboa Park. The city thought the conservancy would be different. It was supposed to start with a bang by agreeing to a formal relationship with the city, its roles and responsibilities sealed in a written agreement.

The conservancy drew up bylaws and formed as a nonprofit organization in April 2011. But the city relationship was trickier to settle. Among other sticking points, the conservancy did not want to be required to hold open meetings. The group said the open-meeting requirements would thwart its ability to solicit donations and discuss the gifts of major donors.

The City Attorney warned that it would have to if it signed the formal agreement with the city. If it refused to sign, distinguishing itself from the other park groups would be tough:

Without the Proposed Agreement, the Conservancy is, arguably, just one more of the several groups interested in and working for the benefit of Balboa Park … [T]he City’s need is for a relationship with a nonprofit corporation that is different than its relationships with existing nonprofits. The purpose of the Proposed Agreement is to create that special relationship, setting the Conservancy apart as the chosen nonprofit working strategically with the City to ensure the future well-being of Balboa Park.

The conservancy decided instead to add a few non-voting members to its board to represent city positions. One represents Gloria’s office. One represents the Mayor’s Office. And the Park and Rec director comes to meetings, too.

Absent the formal blessing from the city, the conservancy’s board knows the group needs to raise money to make its mark.

Its next steps are to outline a list of projects it can pitch in on, and to make a fundraising plan. Already it’s not clear whether the conservancy will make its first mark supporting big-ticket projects — like the plan for more parking and a Park Boulevard promenade near the zoo it lent support to this week — or less exciting, but needed projects.

“It’s not another fountain,” said lobbyist Phil Rath, one of the newest conservancy board members. “It’s not something you can put a plaque on. It’s stucco facades that we’ve painted a hundred times and the paint’s holding the stucco together.”

Some projects could come from the 2015 celebration planning to-do list, like the roof of the municipal gym. Shoring up such a project would serve the thriving pickup basketball community in the future, but could also provide exhibition space for the 2015 celebration.

Chang listed several different projects, connected to needs and groups all over the park. She said she sees the group’s role as helping facilitate other projects that try to address park-wide concerns, like the Friends’ plan for water sustainability.

That’s a way the conservancy can claim its distinct role, she said.

“It isn’t about standing up and beating its chest,” she said. “You earn that.”

Gloria said he hopes the conservancy finds some successes soon to help it garner more public support. And eventually, he hopes the group will re-examine making its process more transparent. But it took years to even decide on the idea of a conservancy. “Nothing in the park moves quickly,” he said.

“The measurement of this is not private sector, it’s not city time, it’s Balboa Park time,” Gloria said. “We’re getting there.”

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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