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Voice of San Diego: Questions about details of 2015 Balboa Park centennial celebration unanswered

(This article originally appeared Voice of San Diego.)

SAN DIEGO -- The organizers of the 2015 Balboa Park Centennial Celebration are on a public relations blitz.

Last Tuesday, they held a well-attended press conference to announce the progression of their plans for what’s being heralded as a world-class extravaganza. They played a nice video, Mayor Bob Filner made some big claims and the event’s producers answered questions from reporters and the public.

But missing from the press conference, and from the centennial campaign as a whole, is details.

With the start of the year-long series of events now 18 months away, the organizers of the centennial have yet to provide key details about how much money they have, how much the events might cost, where people will park or why they just ditched a branding campaign.

How much is all this going to cost?

Is it $10 million? $30 million? $100 million?

Who knows. Filner threw out some hefty numbers at last week’s press conference, and organizers of the event have previously talked about a price tag of about $50 million, but the reality is that the Balboa Park Celebration Inc., the nonprofit charged with making the 2015 centennial happen, won’t divulge any details about how much the events it is planning will cost.

“We have released no public estimates,” spokesman Gerry Braun wrote in a very brief email response to a request for any cost estimates.

Adam Burke, one of the producers of the centennial, was similarly vague.

In various media interviews, he referred to the centennial as “a multimillion-dollar” project, but wouldn’t nail down specifics.

“The idea of the production, and the way it’s been designed, is that it’s very scalable,” Burke said at the press conference. “We understand the environment that we’re working in, where there’s a lot of different funding sources — private groups and government — involved. So we’re prepared to scale this production to make sure that we deliver every element and we’ll let the final number be the number that we work with.”

How much the event will cost, then, seems inextricably tied to how much money the event’s organizers can pull in.

How much money do the organizers have?

Braun’s answer here was similarly vague.

“We have announced no funding beyond that previously reported,” he wrote in his email.

Balboa Park Centennial Inc. has “previously reported” precious little about its fundraising. The organization’s tax records show that between July 2011 and June 2012 it had total funding of $813,882. $450,000 of that came from government grants and the remaining $363,882 came from other contributions, gifts and grants, the records show.

By the end of the year, the organization had spent $663,097, leaving it with a balance of $150,785.

Burke couldn’t shed any light on how healthy the organization’s bank account is now.

“I don’t know how much money they have,” he said. “We definitely have seed money and a development budget, but they’re not at the point where they’re making any big cash announcements.”

The centennial organization should get some money from the controversial Tourism Marketing District tax, and Filner said at the press conference that San Diego Gas & Electric had pledged “millions” to the effort.

Burke didn’t seem fazed by the fact that such a big project has such a cloudy budget.

“Every one of these is different,” he said. “This has never been done before. It is very common for us to start with a development budget and then, later, they let us know how much we are going to get.”

Why did the organizers drop their previous branding of the event?

Last October, in an earlier marketing blitz, centennial organizers unveiled branding for their event: “Edge2015,” a theme that was supposed to showcase San Diego as a hub for innovation and technology.

But at last week’s press conference, Edge2015 was no more.

We have a little more detail on this than some of the other aspects of the 2015 planning. Filner dismissed the issue at the press conference as just a matter of taste.

“What should I say? Some of us didn’t like it,” he said. “When I went around the city as mayor, at the beginning of my term, and I would talk, what excited the people? The park! And when they saw the other thing, it didn’t excite them, it didn’t move them. They said, ‘Why should I be involved?’ It just makes a lot of … so we … we have this now, and I think it’s a lot better.”

Braun added some more detail: “BPCI got a lot of feedback on that brand, pro and con, but ultimately determined was that the Celebration was growing larger than the Edge platform,” he wrote.

Where will people park for the events in Balboa Park?

One of the first questions Filner was asked after last week’s press conference was simple: Where will people park?

The mayor answered in his own inimitable way:

“Next question!”

Then he offered some vague details.

The plan for parking at Balboa Park has long been the same, he said. There is lots of space around the park, and people will be able to park there and then board electric trams that will shuttle them to the events.

The city has already bought trams to transport people, he said, and the organizers of the centennial celebration have gone a step further.

“We have three incredible works of art that are actually transportation units also: We have streetcars from the 1915 exposition,” he said. “And they’re going to be in operation during this thing.”

Braun didn’t have anything to add. Asked to provide more detail, he emailed back one word: “No.”

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619-550-5670.