San Diego’s Tourism Marketing District has $2 million set aside to promote a major centennial celebration in Balboa Park, but it’s safe to say it’ll spend most of that money on something else.

Now that the event’s geared to locals, it won’t need to spend so much on international promotion.

Last week, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Council President Todd Gloria announced the outline for a small party to mark the centennial of the 1915 Panama California Exposition. That came after everyone finally gave up on three years of failed planning—and $2.5 million in lost public funding—for a much larger event.

The TMD put almost $1 million into that effort. It had also budgeted to give it another $2 million, which is now sitting in a metaphorical Scrooge McDuck-style vault, awaiting word on the new plans.

Based on those new plans, most of that money will end up going to promotional efforts for other organizations in the city.

The TMD gets its money by taxing hotel guests, but it can only use it to promote the city to tourists. To get funding from the agency, groups need to go through an application process demonstrating the expenditure will result in hotel room nights.

The new centennial is focused on San Diegans, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have any tourism component. It probably means whatever tourism promotion it lends itself to won’t cost $2 million though. That number was based on the previous event’s promise of 400,000 room nights coming from a $30 million spectacle.

Lorin Stewart, executive director of the TMD, said the city will go through the same application process as everyone else.

The organization’s not opposed to funding small events, he said.

This year it’s giving the La Jolla Playhouse just under $20,000 to promote its “Hunchback of Notre Dame” production, running from October to December. That timing’s crucial, Stewart said, because hotels tend to fill themselves just fine during summer months. It’s the “shoulder season” that needs help.

So San Diego could still get some promotional funding for a small party.

Mayoral spokesman Matt Awbrey said the city is currently looking at a partnership with the TMD as a chance to elevate Balboa Park as a tourist destination. The hotel industry has long said the park is an underutilized asset in the city’s tourism economy: Outsiders know about the beaches and SeaWorld, but not the park.

“So, TMD money would not go to promoting an event,” said Awbrey. “It’ll go instead to promoting the park as a destination.”

But thanks to the TMD’s requirement to demonstrate a return on investment in room nights, it’ll have a tough time funding a generic promotion of the park.

Stewart said it would likely be done through specific events or programs in the park.

The San Diego Natural History Museum, for instance, announced this week it had secured a major King Tut exhibit as part of its 2015 schedule. The museum could request TMD funds to market that exhibit to outsiders. Other institutions could do the same for their own programming.

“It’s going to be an event-driven thing,” Stewart said. “When I look at promoting Balboa Park in general, I’d look at individual programs to do that.”

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

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