File photo of Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Jack McGrory is the former San Diego city manager and current member of the Board of Trustees of the California State University.

Balboa Park is the crown jewel of our great city. It is the heart and soul of San Diego. It is home to great museums and a wide array of cultural and athletic facilities. It embodies the rich history of our region going all the way back to the 1915 Panama Exposition that put San Diego on the map.

Balboa Park is also a major economic generator for the city. Around 5 million people visit the park each year, totaling more than 28 million individual visits. Many of them are visitors from outside the region. The economic impact is more than $350 million per year. And those 2017 figures are likely now a great understatement.

But the park has fallen into disrepair. The maintenance of the park’s public facilities is significantly below standard and is frankly embarrassing. Many of the buildings are in need of major capital investment.

We owe it to our children and future generations of San Diegans to reinvest in the park. Here are three simple recommendations:

Establish a 1 Cent Allocation of Hotel Room Taxes for Balboa Park

In the late 1980s and 1990s the City Council was able to reach this level of support. The funds were used to back maintenance and service bonds to improve the buildings in the park. It resulted in a dramatic redevelopment of Balboa Park.

Today a 1 cent allocation of hotel room tax amounts to about $30 million, but the City Council has no dedicated stream of hotel room tax funding for Balboa Park and the city budget shows very little funding for Balboa Park entities and projects. Over the years city councils have redirected hotel room taxes to fund other pet projects. No wonder the Park is falling apart. The dramatic reduction in room tax funding for the park reflects poorly on the city’s priorities.

The San Diego Municipal Code is crystal clear that the purpose of the hotel room tax is to promote tourism. No other city facility meets this purpose better than Balboa Park.

Establish a 1 Cent Allocation of Hotel Room Tax for the Arts

In the 1990s the City Council had an informal policy to allocate 1 cent of hotel room tax for the arts. It became another economic generator. Today the arts generate $1.1 billion in economic impact for San Diego.

But City Councils over the years have cut the allocation in half. Now the recurring allocation is about $15 million, or half of the 1 cent of hotel room taxes it should be. A great city has world class arts and culture. We need to recommit to that vision. That’s why our city fathers imposed the room tax on visitors and tourists. We need to get back to basics. Use the hotel room tax to promote tourism.

It’s time to renew our commitment to the arts by increasing the allocation to a full 1 cent of hotel room tax. This could fall under the direction of the city’s Commission for the Arts and Culture. The return on investment in public and private dollars will be huge. The City Council must use these funds for what they were intended. To promote tourism and create jobs. It’s not that complicated.

And it’s not like the arts community isn’t picking up its fair share. The $85 million Rady Shell and the $55 million renovation of the Mingei International Museum were both done without any support from the city.

Create a Consolidated Balboa Park Management Organization in the Mayor’s Office

The management of Balboa Park is spread across a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Getting anything done in the park takes forever. We need to put all the park-related functions in one place in the mayor’s office where we can attribute accountability. Having these functions buried in bureaucratic fiefdoms means nothing gets done. That’s why we had the Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium operation located in the City Manager’s Office in the 1990s. It was too important to bury in the bureaucracy.

The park is too important to be held hostage to bureaucratic infighting. And placing a reorganized management group in the mayor’s office reflects the park’s importance.

We should at the same time evaluate the feasibility of a City-County joint powers authority to oversee the park. This is a regional asset that belongs to the entire county and should be governed accordingly. This would be similar to the City-County JPA’s that govern the San Diego and San Dieguito river parks.

I realize that the financial impacts of these recommendations may be significant. So I recommend a three-year phase in period to reach the goal. This will give the Council adequate time to readjust its priorities.

The time to act is now, to reconfirm that Balboa Park is the jewel of San Diego and that the arts are our heart and soul.

Jack McGrory is the former San Diego City Manager and current member of the Board of Trustees of the California State University.

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