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Nearly a decade ago, the list of fixes needed at one of San Diego’s most beloved landmarks was overwhelming.
Supporters complained that a park that annually draws millions of tourists wasn’t getting the financial support it deserved. They demanded change with a ballot measure that would secure funds for improvements – and it worked. The cash infusion has allowed the city to begin etching out a 10-year plan to invest tens of millions of dollars into Mission Bay Park.
In recent months, city officials have presented proposals for a nearly $8 million dredging project, about $29 million in wetland restorations and water-quality improvements and more.
That puts Mission Bay on much different footing than another iconic city landmark with its own vast needs. Balboa Park doesn’t have a dedicated funding source to bankroll deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs that could total more than $300 million. There is no long-term plan to address those needs, let alone pay for them.
“It’s something many people involved in the park would like to see but nobody knows how to get there,” said Mike Kelly, president of the Balboa Park Committee of 100.
Balboa Park’s situation means city officials cobble together money for individual projects rather than plan over the long haul. Leaders have high hopes that philanthropists will step in to provide major assistance but fundraising progress has been slow.
Meanwhile, the city struggles to fight the decay. Balboa Park – though known for its awe-inspiring architecture – is beset with 100-year-old pipes and crumbling buildings. Black spots and rust mark many of its iconic buildings.
The funding situation wasn’t always so dire.
In 1991, the City Council approved a hotel tax hike it envisioned would allow the city to sell bonds to cover nearly $145 million in improvements at both Balboa Park and Mission Bay Park amid concerns many of Balboa Park’s buildings were falling apart.
The influx of cash allowed the city to tear down and rebuild the House of Charm and House of Hospitality in Balboa Park, among other projects.
Jack McGrory, who was city manager when the plan was approved, said city officials signed off on the deal with a recognition of both parks’ ongoing needs.
“You really need a dedicated revenue source to make that work, a long-term commitment,” McGrory said.
But the solution was only temporary. Today, city officials say there’s no funding source earmarked exclusively for Balboa Park.
Mission Bay’s had more luck.
Part of the reason Mission Bay Park gets money is because it brings in money. SeaWorld, a handful of hoteliers and other commercial leases bring in about $30 million a year.
Balboa Park houses cultural institutions and museums that don’t bring in much lease revenue for the city. The city also doesn’t charge for parking or assess significant user fees there.
City Councilman Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park, is convinced that difference is one reason a bond measure or other dedicated cash for the park may not be sustainable.
“A designated funding mechanism for Balboa Park would be appropriate if there were an acceptable way to pay for it,” Gloria said.
Then there’s the fact that there are countless other competing infrastructure needs outside Balboa Park’s 1,200 acres, Gloria said.
Indeed, supporters of Mission Bay Park used that park’s lease revenue to make the case for more cash.
Nearly a decade ago, after a failed City Council promise to throw a significant chunk of lease revenue at Mission Bay Park needs, then-City Councilman Kevin Faulconer and former Councilwoman Donna Frye championed a ballot measure called Proposition C to ensure that park got more money.
About $19 million in lease revenue has since flowed into the Mission Bay Park Improvement Fund. Meanwhile, Balboa Park competes with other regional parks, including Mission Trails, for about $2.5 million in additional funding each year. (Balboa Park projects got less than 10 percent of that pot in 2013 and 2014 plus funding from a handful of other sources.)
The money from the ballot measure – expected to total about $7.5 million to $8.5 million a year – will allow the city to kick off several projects in Mission Bay Park coming years.
Kevin Konopasek, general manager at The Dana on Mission Bay, has watched the funding prognosis change for Mission Bay Park since Proposition C passed seven years ago.
Back then, for example, it wasn’t clear how or when the city would pay to dredge areas where sandbars have built up and created potential hazards for boaters and water skiers, he said.
Now the project is fully funded.
“I think it’s a stroke of genius that we had this proposition that was able to come in and maintain Mission Bay Park,” said Konopasek, who serves on the city’s Mission Bay Park Committee. “I don’t know how else we would accomplish these things trying to get money from the general fund.”