San Diego civic leaders created three nonprofit groups in 2011 to help Balboa Park.

One would spearhead a massive renovation of the park’s central promenade in time for a gigantic, yearlong party to celebrate the centennial of the 1915 Panama California Exposition. Another would throw the party.

Those groups failed. They’re dead.

The last group standing is the Balboa Park Conservancy. It was created to funnel philanthropic funds into the park not just to tackle its $300 million infrastructure needs, but to enhance whatever it could.

The city had shown it was incapable or unwilling to handle that job, so Mayor Jerry Sanders announced in late 2010 it would fall to the conservancy to drum up money from private donors.

That hasn’t happened. Since its founding, the organization’s raised just under $250,000, and spent not quite $35,000 on the park.

But now the city’s now giving the conservancy a chance to put itself on the map. After almost three years without any results, the city is looking to it as the steward of a last-gasp effort to celebrate the centennial. And its leaders hope to use it as a chance to save their first building in Balboa Park at the same time.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Council President Todd Gloria last week unveiled plans for a scaled-down, locals-focused centennial, to replace the ambitious, international spectacle that had been envisioned, before it became a highly publicized fire in a barrel.

The conservancy will be the city’s partner in throwing the locals-only affair.

“If we do this event, this will help the conservancy,” Gloria said, before the new plans had been announced.

Gloria said he’d always looked at the centennial as a way to jump-start fundraising for the conservancy; after all, even New York’s Central Park Conservancy needed time to start making a difference, he said.

“The centennial is important historically — it started a century of prosperity, etc. — but 2015 should play a similar role, as a launching pad for the next 100 years, to get people in, to get them to volunteer, contribute, to furnish the conservancy,” he said. “What we do in the four walls of institutions or public spaces is hopefully an enticement to get people more involved.”

The city’s Special Events office, led by its director Carolyn Wormser, will take the lead on planning, with the conservancy as its major partner.

But Faulconer’s announcement laid out the the broad strokes of a plan: four major events, including the 2014 and 2015 December Nights. They’ll now serve as the centennial’s opening and closing ceremonies.

The conservancy for the first time in 2013 managed December Nights. They’ll try to do the same for the next two years, and for the two new events. Conservancy board member Ray Ellis said the idea is for the spring event to focus on what San Diego does well (think innovation) and the fall event to celebrate San Diego’s people (think diversity).

“Make no mistake: The city took the event back,” Ellis said. “They’re the leader, and we’ll collaborate. We were asked to participate as a partner because of our successful management of December Nights 2013.”

He said the conservancy will use the backdrop of the centennial to fundraise for a $2.8 million restoration and enhancement program of the park’s botanical garden building.

Those efforts — managing the four events, and soliciting contributions to pay for improvements at the botanical garden — will be largely separate.

Ellis said corporate sponsorships would be best suited to funding the events; finding capital to improve the botanical garden should be philanthropic. But it’s possible there could be some overlap between those efforts, depending on the partnerships the group can strike, he said.

“We will definitely try to raise funds privately and through sponsorships, just like we do with December Nights, where the city doesn’t pay a nickel,” he said. “Keep in mind we aren’t talking about a yearlong event, we’re talking four weekend events.”

He and the conservancy have learned at least one lesson from the failed centennial effort. That group had a $30 million price tag for an event it hadn’t even planned yet.

Ellis wouldn’t provide a potential dollar figure for the cost of the new event.

“It’s premature to talk about dollar figures,” he said. “We have a plan to develop. In a week or two we might be able to release targets.”

The botanical garden enhancement will deal with maintenance, restore historic elements, make the building more sustainable in its water usage and improve its lighting scheme so it can be used after dark.

“We’re hoping to weave that work into 2015, so we can leave a project that lasts beyond 2015,” he said.

Ellis hopes a major donor steps up to kick-start fundraising.

Ellis said the conservancy’s lackluster fundraising can partly be chalked up to the park’s dynamics since the group launched. By design, it needed to take a backseat to the Plaza de Panama Committee, then to Balboa Park Centennial Inc., since those organizations had time-sensitive missions.

“We would have liked to raise more money,” he said. “But with the sequencing of events, that was the lay of the land and we wanted to be team players and act accordingly.”

When it was launched, though, there was no mention of such deference, and two years later there was some disappointment in how long it took to get moving.

The group last year spent $33,129, including $27,000 on collaborative workshops, $5,000 on a joint program with Balboa Park Online Collaborative to provide wireless service near the organ pavilion and $1,000 to Friends of Balboa Park for landscaping.

Of the $168,345 it brought in last year, $68,399 came from a grant from the San Diego Foundation for general support of the organization’s mission. Another $95,100 came from individual donors or foundations. It hasn’t received any public money.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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