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Investigative journalism, abridged. Here are the discoveries we uncovered during our big dig into the Balboa Park centennial fiasco.
Our big investigation into the implosion of Balboa Park Celebration Inc. yielded a wide-ranging takeaway:
As the organization scrambled to meet expectations, management turnover disrupted it, political leaders mismanaged it, costly vendors failed to deliver and now little time remains to put on an event of lasting significance.
Scott Lewis and Andrew Keatts uncovered a multitude of competing interests and bad decisions.
In case you missed some of the discoveries that came out of that examination, here’s the CliffsNotes version — all the biggest revelations we found.
Carl Winston, director of SDSU’s hospitality program, projected how many hotel room nights could have been generated by a world-class centennial celebration.
But his study, he said, was based on what was possible if all of the events BPCI promised to produce had all actually been produced. If everything promised came to pass, it was possible to see 300,000 to 500,000 hotel room nights.
“Our perspective was, if you do the things you say, and at a scale that’s comparable to those things, you could do it,” Winston said. “That got taken in interesting ways as a guarantee.”
Early in his tenure as mayor, Bob Filner attended a board meeting of the BPCI and took offense to a fundraiser’s report that the group could only raise $30 million through corporate sponsorships, not philanthropy alone.
“David [Gillig] was making his presentation and Filner just yelled at him. Told him he was stupid. Told him he was not going to allow corporatization of the park, with company signs everywhere,” Ben Clay said.Gillig left the meeting. Clay said he left because of the yelling. Gillig told us he just thought he was supposed to leave.
“I wasn’t really mad. I didn’t like the way I was treated by the mayor but he’s the one who came off looking bad, not me,” Gillig said.
Either way, Gillig was out.
(Council President Todd) Gloria said it wasn’t easy to pitch the vision that replaced it — less about the future, more about the past — to the people needed to get the Centennial to a $30 million budget.
“Believe me, I heard plenty of people that didn’t like Edge 2015,” Gloria said. “But … as I was making phone calls it became clear to me that we probably needed Edge 2015 — because … 1915 and 1935 were very forward-looking events. I think, that’s what Edge 2015 was about, and listen, I’m not a pro at this stuff, but my sense was when you’re calling our high-tech companies about an event that … because of (Filner’s) vision of it became more backward-looking than forward-looking, it was hard for them to see a place for them in this, so their checks got smaller, or nonexistent.”
That was a recurring sentiment: Maybe Edge wasn’t all that hip, but it would’ve worked OK, and changing it set everyone back.
Filner especially liked one of the contractors: Autonomy, the firm that had been selected to produce the entire show.
“He told us, ‘This is the first time I heard a vision I can get behind,’” said Adam Burke, of Autonomy.
Despite the fact that the organization meant to pull off the project was in disarray, Filner’s vision for how big and bold it could be only expanded.
“He was taking the position that he was the mayor and this was going to be very big,” Burke said. Autonomy partners responded with a proposal to program their vision of a world-class celebration. They wanted $500,000 for it.
“It is positioned to be the largest joint celebration of park space, museums and other institutions that the western United States has ever seen,” Burke and his partner wrote to Filner.
At one point, Gloria appeared in a promotional video. In it, he says: ”The Balboa Park centennial celebration will be the No. 1 reason people visit San Diego in 2015.”
But in reality, he told VOSD, he’d known BPCI was in big trouble since just after he took office as interim mayor.
He said he considered pulling the plug then, but couldn’t bring himself to do it for two reasons. One was competing priorities.
“The second one is more emotional,” he said. “I’ll be really honest: This is something I’ve been involved with for some time, I understood where we were trying to go with it. The fact that we weren’t meeting the mark, I … I didn’t want to give up on it.”
Early on, hotelier Bill Evans wanted the TMD to plan the event, so it could be run by tourism professionals.
Gerry Braun, who left his job as special projects director under Sanders to become BPCI’s spokesman, said Evans twice told him about a pitch along those lines he had made to the Sanders administration, before Braun worked for Sanders.
Evans told Braun he presented to Sanders’ office his plan to give TMD control over the Centennial, along with a larger upfront financial commitment.
Sanders rejected it.
(TMD Executive Director Lorin) Stewart and (BPCI’s former CEO Mike) McDowell acknowledged there were early discussions with Sanders’ administration along those lines, but said there was never a formal offer.
The discussed TMD funding package could have been for as much as $1 million a year for five years, giving it a $5 million budget to plan the type of spectacle that would attract corporate sponsorship.
The TMD saw that not much was coming from its investment. The group started to question whether Julie Dubick, Sanders’ former chief of staff and McDowell’s replacement, and the rest of BCPI were up to the challenge of putting on a massive celebration.
Board members had concerns that BCPI hadn’t actually secured some major sponsorship agreements it had mentioned in its request for more funding. Dubick ended up resigning under the TMD’s scrutiny, and less than a month later, BCPI folded and returned the remaining funding to the city.
Bill Evans had these harsh but cryptic words to explain the centennial’s failure:
“Not that hard to drive a Greyhound bus over a steep mountain road as long as you have a driver with experience,” Evans wrote in an email.
“If you let someone that has never done it before give it a try, you shouldn’t be too surprised when it goes over the edge in a big ball of fire. Political strength should not be confused with business acumen. The hospitality/event business is a real bitch to pull off. The margin of error between being a hero or a bum is very small.”
And Ben Clay, who led the BPCI board with wife Nikki, acknowledged that critics who said they weren’t the right people for the job might’ve had a point:
“They’re absolutely correct. Nikki and I haven’t done anything like this. But that’s why we put a board of directors and outside committee together. We had connections and people we could talk to to make this happen,” he said. “It’s what you do for San Diego — what you do for your community.”
Andrew Keatts contributed to this post.