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.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.”

    This article relates to: Balboa Park, Government, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about nonprofits and local progress in addressing causes like homelessness and Balboa Park’s needs. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    12 comments
    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    I agree that the city should change its budget and reporting system so that all user fees collected by Park and Rec are clearly

    reflected in the budget. I also agree that the Zoo should be required to contribute some portion of its annual revenue to Balboa Park upkeep. Or the city could simply discontinue its annual subsidies to the Zoo, which could get along very well without them, and redirect all that money toward Balboa Park maintenance.

    ZachW
    ZachW subscriber

    As the article points out, the hotel tax has been used in the past to help fund these iconic parks. Now, as Balboa Park has over $300 million in deferred maintenance, the Chargers want to raise the hotel tax - by a LOT - to fund a football stadium downtown. They think that by slapping some sort of convention center annex onto it, they will dress-up the pig and make it seem like it's not as frivolous. It would be really irresponsible to hike up our hotel tax giving our city one of the highest hotel tax rates in the nation to fund a football stadium for a billionaire when Balboa Park is in such dire need of repair

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    This whole part issue is ridiculous. Why does Torrey Pines golf course have greater priority than Montgomery-Waller Park? Why does the Zoo have automatic funding and Balboa Park gets none? Answer? The City of San Diego has decided that it is not a city for all within its limits.  Mission Bay Park has no real greater importance than the rest of the park system. It is the City of San Diego that is the attraction for tourists and its citizens. And, there is another dark secret with the Parks and Recreation Department. That city department keeps all the funds from user fees and it does not account for it in its budget  with a defining line item per park. So, where does the Pand K distribute those  fees? How does the Pand K distribute those user fees? So, the whole park system, in my view, needs to be revamped completely to one, be transparent and to, two adequately fund all the parks in a sustainable manner.  We all enjoy Mission Bay Park, Torrey Pines,  Montgomery-Waller, the Zoo,  all of Balboa Park, and the rest of the parks in San Diego. So, this piece meal funding to some and not all does not serve the whole of the City, the people of the City of San Diego.

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    Balboa Park is in Councilperson Todd Gloria's district and as usual he hasn't a clue. Todd Gloria obviously doesn't feel like leading an effort to provide routine maintenance for the park, and is directly responsible for the failed Centennial Celebration,  This is typical of Todd's tenure as a councilperson. He is there for the photo op, but unavailable when it comes to the responsibilities of his office or the needs of his constituents.

    On another note, why doesn't the Zoo chip in ? They must be making a ton of money utilizing Balboa Park for their menagerie.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    I was at the city council meeting in1991 when the mayor and council members adopted a major update of the Balboa Park Master Plan (which still exists) and increased the TOT tax to pay for park improvements detailed in the updated master plan. The mayor and council members promised to use the additional TOT revenues to implement the updated master plan. Unfortunately, succeeding mayors and council members ignored that promise and diverted the additional TOT funds promised for park master plan implementation to other purposes. Even if the voters passed an initiative requiring that those particular TOT revenues be diverted back to park master plan implementation purposed, I don't think the current crop of city politicians can be trusted to do so.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Don Wood You're correct about the history; however, the issue of greatest importance is addressing deferred maintenance. There are huge needs on the Central Mesa.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    It’s important to understand this issue in context. Mission Bay Park was essentially created as a self-funding entity whereby up to 25% of the park would be given to commercial interests (under long-term leases) to pay for the development and upkeep of public areas of the park. Those leases currently include hotels like the Catamaran and Hilton, Sea World, and so forth. That’s where the money for initially dredging the bay came from and it is a very legitimate argument for maintaining the park at the current levels. There have been tensions over the years regarding whether Mission Bay was actually getting the all the money it was generating (it probably doesn’t). Some of the greatest advocates for the park are the businesses that lease land in the park, since the success of their hotels and businesses depend, in part, on the desirability of the park. Mission Bay is a very good public/private partnership in which both benefit immeasurably.

    Balboa Park could be operated in a similar fashion if people desired it. For example, some portion of the park could be leased to a hotel or hotels with a proviso that the income therefrom would inure to the park. Some might be horrified by that. Others might think it’s a great idea. That is the Mission Bay model. 

    Consider, for example, San Diego High School, which occupies a part of Balboa Park. There has been some discussion of late that it should be moved out of the park as was intended many years ago. It could be replaced with a hotel (with public approval), which would have no net impact on park accessibility (since the school is presently taking up parkland), and the income from the hotel could be used exclusively for Balboa Park. The location of the hotel would be walking distance from the Zoo and all of the park.


    Mike German
    Mike German

    This is all fine and well, and I support more improvements to our parks, but when it comes to "wetlands," let's not forget that aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits not just the zika virus but a host of other diseases, is now known to breed in brackish water, i.e. some of the areas envisioned in the expansion of Mission Bay Park.  Enough with excessive "habitat protection," which usually protects all habitats except humans'; drain, not expand, the swamps where it makes sense to do so.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Mike German Or a well balanced wetlands could contain fish, which could eat the mosquito larvae. 

    zee cee
    zee cee

    So much money?  

    Just for parks?

    No wonder we use Oil barrels on OB and PB as trash cans, not much showers, no dressing rooms, ETC

    Maybe look for sponsors?

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs subscribermember

    Some of the people who have taken the time to read the Citizens' Plan have asked whether the Suburban TFID could assess itself at a rate high enough to help with Balboa Park's deferred maintenance. The answer is "yes," the hoteliers could make that election to repair any tourist related facility.