Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Balboa Park’s two largest philanthropic groups are seriously considering a merger.

For years, the Friends of Balboa Park and the Balboa Park Conservancy have separately worked to raise funds and corral volunteers to support the iconic park with a long list of needs.

During a pandemic where park institutions have seen their revenues plummet, the two nonprofits have quietly been discussing whether they could do more to address the park’s challenges together.

The two groups now expect to signal by early next year whether they will move forward with a merger that some park insiders have suggested for years. The whispers have played out alongside long-running discussions about the lack of clear leadership on park issues, duplication of efforts and overhead among various Balboa Park groups and struggles to execute major park initiatives and projects.

“There’s so much overlap with what they do and what we do, a lot of gardening and projects and volunteer work and volunteer recognition that both of us really work toward,” said Sarah Evans, vice chair of the Friends of Balboa Park. “It makes sense to talk about if we can unify and have two plus two equal five.”

The two groups’ decision could emerge around the same time as takeaways and possible actions gleaned from a city-backed effort to establish shared park priorities and plans to address challenges.

The groups’ discussions about a potential merger began earlier this year after Friends of Balboa Park founder Betty Peabody reached out to founding Conservancy board member Carol Chang. Representatives from both groups began talks on Memorial Day, weeks after former Conservancy’s CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler’s resignation. In late August, the groups signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize their conversations. They hope to complete a series of internal reviews before the holidays that will allow their boards to decide whether to move forward with a merge.

Conservancy board chair Connie Matsui and Evans said the two groups’ increasing partnerships before and during the pandemic helped set the stage for the talks.

For example, Matsui said, the Friends and Conservancy in the past year collaborated on a restoration of the Alcazar Garden. They also co-hosted a mayoral forum focused on Balboa Park Friday with Voice of San Diego.

“(Merger talks are) kind of a natural evolution given the pressures we’re feeling from COVID and an opportunity to have support from the new mayor,” Matsui said.

Evans said the economic impacts of the pandemic spurred the Friends of Balboa Park to start the conversation.

“Both groups were doing fine but seeing the opportunity to help the park during what is going to be its hour of need was really a driving force in getting this going,” Evans said.

Historically, the two groups have filled slightly different roles.

The Friends of Balboa Park was founded in 1999 and has over the years funded and worked on historic restorations, beautification efforts and more. In 2017, it purchased the historic Balboa Park Carousel and began operating it.

The Conservancy was created a decade ago with the hope that it could eventually establish a formal relationship with a city, raise money for major park projects and emerge as the key park leader. But the nonprofit has yet to fulfill that role.

More recently, Matsui said, the city has given the Conservancy the go-ahead to put up park wayfinding signs and formal approval to help maintain and improve gardens throughout the park.

If the two groups combine forces, it could bolster their capacity to take on more responsibilities and make it easier for the city to partner with them.

Balboa Park Committee Chair Katherine Johnston said a merger could pave the way for more significant day-to-day work, major projects and the sort of park leader civic leaders imagined years ago when they championed the creation of a conservancy.

“If the process is successful and these organizations find a way to engage the community and become a credible leader in the park on major issues, then I think that there’s a real opportunity to work with the city to strengthen that relationship so that it replicates the public-private model that exists in every successful municipal park,” said Johnston, who is also a Conservancy board member. “I think it’s the first step in the right direction to achieve that.”

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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