The Botanical Building in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

A decade ago, the San Diego mayor, flanked by philanthropists, launched the Balboa Park Conservancy with a vision to help address the crumbling crown jewel’s myriad problems.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic that is hammering park institutions and the sudden departure of its CEO, supporters are hoping the nonprofit can emerge as a leader and philanthropic force for Balboa Park.

The Balboa Park Conservancy announced earlier this month that CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler had resigned, leaving behind a nonprofit that has struggled to prove its mettle and earn the trust of park stakeholders and philanthropists.

Conservancy leaders say they intend to continue to ramp up efforts to deliver on their overarching mission to ensure Balboa Park’s long-term well-being. They even argue they are seeing positive momentum. But they aren’t offering specifics on how – or when – they might pursue a formal management deal with the city that was envisioned a decade ago and instead say it will take a series of steps to build toward that goal.

“This is not something that happens quickly, but through ongoing relationship-building and growing trust,” Conservancy board chair Joyce Gattas said.

Herrera-Mishler’s resignation comes as the park grapples with an unprecedented crisis that has forced the shutdown of the iconic El Prado walkway and park institutions, adding new financial challenges on top of longstanding ones such as the slew of infrastructure needs that many estimate total hundreds of millions of dollars.

The pandemic will only increase the park’s need for outside support.

“It’s going to take investing – whether it’s governmental, whether it’s philanthropic – to make sure we can get back up on the step,” said San Diego Air & Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick, who estimates his museum’s budget has taken a 98 percent hit due to its forced closure.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders and other civic leaders backed the creation of the Balboa Park Conservancy in 2011 in the hopes that it could become the city’s partner to protect and provide for the park even amid city budget calamities. Supporters thought the nonprofit could become San Diego’s version of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy. They hoped it would establish a formal relationship with a city, raise money for park projects and emerge as the key park leader many craved.

But the Balboa Park Conservancy didn’t secure governance power in the park. While the Conservancy has expanded the park’s volunteer corps and moved forward a number of projects including a planned parkwide signage overhaul and restorations of iconic park gardens, it never grew into the role supporters envisioned.

In 2015, Conservancy leaders hired Herrera-Mishler as the group’s first CEO.

On Herrera-Mishler’s watch, the Conservancy pulled in $1.7 million in direct grants as well as increased donations, planted hundreds of trees and improved spaces such as the Casa del Prado and historic Cactus Garden. And in the past year, the Conservancy has celebrated both an invitation to participate in a Central Park Conservancy-run lab to help it better partner with the city and the city’s acceptance of an $8.3 million state grant to help restore the Botanical Building, a stalled initiative that the nonprofit still hopes will pave the way for future projects.

Retired biotech executive Connie Matsui, who will take over as the Conservancy’s board chair in July, said she is optimistic the Conservancy can thrive going forward.

“With that track record of successful programs and projects, we’re really looking forward to building on those strengths, but of course, within a COVID-19 reality,” Matsui said.

Herrera-Mishler suggested to The Union-Tribune that the Conservancy was financially struggling as a result of the pandemic, and implied that was the reason for his departure.

“All of the Conservancy’s income dried up when (the city) closed the park,” Herrera-Mishler told the U-T. “You don’t think about a job in a historic park as being so vulnerable to (the pandemic), but tourism income is one of the primary drivers in Balboa Park. Every nonprofit in the park is going to suffer.”

But Matsui and Gattas said the Conservancy is for now well positioned to weather the storm due to its roughly $342,000 reserve account and a separate $378,000 reserve for its headquarters at the House of Hospitality.

Matsui and Gattas did not elaborate on the reasons for Herrera-Mishler’s departure but the organization – and specifically its former CEO – over the last five years failed to win the broad support needed to execute the mission set forth years ago.

Last fall, the Conservancy board approved a new strategic plan for the next three to five years that emphasizes, among other goals, “building trust and credibility through collaboration, value creation and a reputation for getting things done” and building relationships with the city, community members and other stakeholders.

Herrera-Mishler, who declined to speak with VOSD, was a divisive figure who sometimes clashed with park stakeholders and even city park and recreation officials whose support is crucial to the Conservancy’s success.

Park insiders and outside interests have also long questioned the Conservancy’s decision to hire a landscape architect rather than a well-connected fundraiser – and whether Herrera-Mishler was equipped to survive in a challenging park environment difficult for even longtime players to navigate. Many believe the lack of a formal agreement between the city and the Conservancy also hampered Herrera-Mishler’s progress.

“I don’t think he had a skill set that matched the challenges and I don’t think he got a lot of help,” said Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi, one of several civic leaders who has urged reforms in the park. “The Conservancy was basically just another organization in the park.”

Vicki Estrada, who wrote the city’s 1989 master plan for the park and worked with Herrera-Mishler on multiple projects, said she appreciated the former CEO’s project management skills and vision for park improvements, but agreed that the lack of a formal agreement between the Conservancy and the city stymied him.

“I think his hands were tied,” Estrada said. Herrera-Mishler leaves the Conservancy with an expired lease for the House of Hospitality that provides the nonprofit with crucial revenue, particularly from The Prado restaurant and visitors’ center gift shop it runs. The Conservancy rents the property from the city and plays landlord to a handful of tenants, including The Prado and Spreckels Organ Society, and operates the gift shop itself. The lease ended almost two years ago and has since become a month-to-month arrangement.

Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the city gave the Conservancy a new draft lease in 2018.

Matsui said the Conservancy has been actively negotiating the terms with the city “for quite some time.”

Those talks have played out during a time the city has tried to push nonprofits in the park that have historically enjoyed low rents to agree to lease terms more favorable to the city. Last year, the Conservancy paid the city nearly $102,700, an amount based on a percentage of House of Hospitality revenues.

It’s unclear whether a new chief executive will end up negotiating that agreement. Gattas said the Conservancy will not rush to hire a new leader and has accepted an offer from retired Assistant Chief Operating Officer Stacey LoMedico, who for years led the city’s park and recreation department, to serve as a strategic adviser.

LoMedico, who will act as a volunteer liaison between the city and the Conservancy, is likely to play a significant role in trying to bring the Conservancy’s Botanical Building restoration to the finish line.

City spokesman Tim Graham said the city expects to issue bids for consultants and a general contractor for the project within the next two weeks and to break ground in coming months. The city must complete the project by mid-2022 as required by the state grant helping fund the project and for now, Graham said, the city hopes it will remain on schedule.

Gattas said the Conservancy soon plans to kick off a fundraising campaign for additional elements of the project.

Success in that effort could help make the case for future partnerships, Gattas said. “The Botanical Building gives us an opportunity to model a good public-private partnership.”

Gattas said the Conservancy’s participation in the Central Park Conservancy’s educational program for other park organizations has driven home the importance of more incremental agreements and partnerships to help make the case to sign a more substantial agreement with the city.

The city and the Conservancy in recent years have partnered on a handful of permits to execute park projects and programs, and the city said it expects the Conservancy’s responsibilities to broaden once the Botanical Building project is completed.

Whether the Conservancy is eventually deemed qualified to take on more overarching park responsibilities will likely rest on a number of factors, including its future executive, future city leadership and the outcome of a previously envisioned park planning effort that began earlier this year.

There are many Balboa Park institutions and organizations with their own interests and priorities for the park and there are also groups other than the Conservancy focused on bankrolling park projects. The park is also overseen by the park and recreation department, which is directed by the mayor, but it’s also considered a regional resource. City Council members who represent Balboa Park have historically rallied behind it, but they don’t have a say over day-to-day operations.

No one is sure exactly who is in charge – and not everyone is convinced the Conservancy should be.

There has long been talk about the need to establish unified leadership to set park priorities and facilitate major changes and improvements.

Before the pandemic, the Balboa Park Committee hosted a February public meeting to kick off a year-long effort aimed at establishing priorities and addressing the long-standing confusion about park leadership.

The city’s planning department had been set to update the committee on next steps at its April meeting. The group’s April and May meetings have since been canceled and Graham said that work has continued behind the scenes and there are plans to present at a future meeting.

That planning effort followed concerns about park leadership and planning following the demise of both the Plaza de Panama project to overhaul the park’s central mesa and a city proposal to develop Inspiration Point.

The possibilities for the Conservancy’s next leader could be shaped by those planning discussions.

Wherever those discussions lead, former Conservancy board member Vicki Granowitz said she sees Herrera-Mishler’s departure as an opportunity for the Conservancy to seek a leader better suited to execute the mission she helped champion a decade ago.

“I think (Herrera-Mishler) leaving is a good thing. He never really had the right skill set for the Conservancy, for what their primary task was supposed to be,” said Granowitz, who now serves on the Balboa Park Committee. “I believe this now allows them to look to hire someone with a fundraising background.”

Gattas said the Conservancy expects to seek a new leader who can bring expertise on fundraising and collaboration with the city and other park stakeholders.

Peter Ellsworth of the Legler Benbough Foundation, which has helped fund multiple studies about the park’s challenges and supported several park institutions, said he is hopeful both the pandemic and Herrera-Mishler’s departure will inspire more conversations about how stakeholders can collectively address the park’s challenges.

“I really think, at this point, the big thing ought to be: How do we get together and address the real issues that we face?” Ellsworth said.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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