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Conservancy Sets Priorities For Ever-Changing Balboa Park

Reported by Katie Schoolov

The list of repairs in Balboa Park keeps growing. Paint is chipping, there’s mildew and dry rot. Some molding had to be taken down because it was sagging. The city is the park’s landlord. KPBS reporter Angela Carone says a Conservancy is also trying to raise money for these projects.

A look at how the five-year-old Balboa Park Conservancy plans to preserve and maintain San Diego's "crown jewel" now that there's a new CEO leading the charge.

The list of needed repairs in Balboa Park keeps growing. Paint is chipping. There’s mildew and dry rot. Recently some moulding along an arched walkway had to be taken down because it was sagging.

The city of San Diego is the park’s landlord and leases many of the buildings to the various museums in the park.

Back in 2010, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders stood in Balboa Park and announced a plan for the financial future of the 1,200-acre park. He unveiled the Balboa Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that would be the city’s partner in taking care of the park.

The reason was simple.

"The city doesn’t have the resources to provide the kind of care this magnificent park deserves," Sanders said.

As a model, San Diego looked to New York City, where the Central Park Conservancy raised millions of dollars and transformed Central Park.

The idea is that a conservancy can raise private dollars from donors for park projects, something the city can’t do.

A portrait of Thomas Herrera-Mishler, the new CEO and Executive Director of the Balboa Park Conservancy.

"Municipal work can only go so far sometimes," said Thomas Herrera-Mishler, the conservancy's new CEO. "There are real limitations to how dollars can be spent. So having the ability to bring private dollars into a project can be really transformational."

What gets transformed by the conservancy may not always be the most pressing issue facing the park. The water main system is 100 years old and needs to be overhauled.

But the conservancy’s first big fundraising campaign is for the restoration of the Botanical Building, which sits in front of the lily pond and houses rare and tropical plants.

The conservancy’s Board President Carol Littlejohn Chang said starting with the iconic Botanical Building was a no-brainer.

"We know that would be appealing to private donors," Chang said. "We don’t feel quite as sanguine that a sewer is particularly appealing to a private donor."

The goal is to raise $3 million for the Botanical Building project. They’ve raised about a half a million so far, Chang said. The money will be used to fix the roof, add lights and to restore many of the features it had in 1915, the year it was built. The Botanical Building was one of four buildings built for the Panama-California Exposition that was meant to be permanent.

As for that pesky water main system?

"It has urgency to be addressed," Chang said. "It’s top of mind for many organizations in the park and it’s certainly top of mind for us."

The conservancy staff has a lot on their plate: dealing with a long list of deferred maintenance, making the park more drought tolerant, saving trees, among other things. Herrera-Mishler, who led the Olmstead Parks Conservancy in Buffalo, started July 1.

He doesn’t seem worried about the long to-do list.

"I’ve been dealing with historic landscapes for a long time and they’re never done. You always have something you need to do," he said.

"Especially landscapes are living, they’re changing all the time. So there’s a lot of very careful thinking that has to go into every project. That’s why we can’t rush into projects," Herrera-Mishler said.

But some say the conservancy needs to speed things up. It’s been around for five years and doesn’t have much to show for it.

"I think that’s legitimate as a comment. And my response back to it, I would say we took some time to organize," Chang said. "We didn’t exist."

Chang said they invested in building relationships with other stakeholders and institutional leaders in the park.

This would be true for any nonprofit entering the park sphere, especially one charged with raising significant private dollars. Most of the organizations in the park are also courting donors. Another kid on the fundraising block is not always welcome.

One of the most vigilant guardians of the park’s future is Mike Kelly, who runs the Committee of 100, a preservation group. He charts every crack in every building, and there are a lot of them. He has high hopes for the conservancy and will be watching its every move. Public officials often call Balboa Park the city’s crown jewel. You might call Kelly the keeper of the crown.

"I think everyone who comes to Balboa Park would consider it to be the crown jewel, even though the crown is tarnished and probably a few jewels are missing," Kelly said.

Chang and Herrera-Mishler said the conservancy is the key to preserving that crown for future generations.

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