by Richard W. Amero
Someone in San Diego is always advocating the holding of an international exposition. Despite this constant advocacy, the city has never held a genuine World's Fair. The Panama-California Exposition, held in Balboa Park in 1915, was not a world's fair, but a regional fair that highlighted the possibilities of the American Southwest. When the rival 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco closed, many countries sent their exhibits to San Diego because war in Europe made it difficult for them to send the exhibits home. San Diego's continuing fair was renamed the Panama-California International Exposition in 1916 because the new exhibits had broadened its scope. Japan was the only foreign country to put up a building at San Diego's first exposition, albeit the tea pavilion and garden were built by a trade association rather than by the Japanese government.
Organizers of the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition held in Balboa Park called it a world's fair, but foreign countries did not participate. Consular representatives of foreign nations or commercial agents representing foreign enterprises staffed exposition buildings, such as the House of Pacific Relations and Spanish Village.
Ex-mayor John L. Sehon, ex-Congressman W. Bowers, architect Irving J. Gill, and hotel men objected to putting the 1915 exposition in Balboa Park. Similarly, merchant and civic leader George W. Marston thought the center of the park was no place for an exposition, but he did not express his thoughts in public.
San Diego City and County, exhibitors, voters who approved bonds, and subscribers to Exposition stock financed the 1915-16 exposition. San Diego City and County, the federal government, exhibitors, and subscribers to stock financed the 1935-36 exposition. The 1915-16 exposition showed a small net profit of $38,000 and the 1935-36, $44,000. If physical improvements and corollary benefits to the City were considered, profits would be larger.
In 1917 boosters prolonged the fair for three months during which time it ran up bills and consumed most of its profit. The U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917 put the San Diego exposition to rest.
Some San Diegans grumbled about the closing of Balboa Park for the expositions and about a suspected tie-up between gambling activities in Tijuana and at the Exposition.
Institutions in the park found exposition restrictions to be burdensome. Zoo officials complained that the number of visitors had dropped due to competing attractions and the difficulties of access caused by the 1935-36 exposition.
Expositions damaged Balboa Park by putting buildings on park land and by creating circulation patterns that did not allow for the differing needs of pedestrians and automobiles.
Promoters claim expositions bring prosperity to cities and leave behind usable buildings on empty public land.
World War II shattered Albert V. Mayrhofer's dream of an Exposition in Balboa Park in 1942. The Korean War nullified Guilford H. Whitney and Ewart W. Goodwin's 1949 proposal for an "American Way of Life" celebration in Balboa Park and Mission Bay in 1955 (San DiegoUnion, May 14, 1950). Promoters bounced back in 1954 with a plan for a "Festival of the Seven Lively Arts" in Balboa Park in 1957 (San Diego Evening Tribune, October 26, 1954).
Speaking in opposition, Wayne Dailard, manager of San Diego's 1936 Exposition, claimed expositions had become obsolete (San Diego Union, August 28, 1955). He proposed a series of summer events similar to Santa Barbara's "Old Spanish Days."
Under Dailard's management, a private organization put on a 33-day "Fiesta del Pacifico" in 1956, with a 14-day pageant, "The California Story," in Balboa Stadium (San Diego Union, July 18, 1956). San Diego City and County gave $50,000 each on condition the request would be one-time only (San Diego Union, November 13, 1955; October 31, 1956). The fiesta dragged on for three more summers. City Council representatives balked at donating funds and approving use of Balboa Park buildings for continuing fiesta activities (San Diego Union, November 16, 1956). Hotel owners complained the fiesta lowered attendance at San Diego's regular summer attractions (San Diego Union, May 1, 1950; December 3, 1959; February 27 1960).
Claiming that San Diego could not obtain certification from the Bureau of International Expositions, a committee headed by Fred Stalder in 1964 advised against holding a World's Fair in San Diego in 1967-68. Upon being told by Joseph B. Scholnick that a California World's Fair would cost $7.5 million, would result in a $5 million cash profit, and would leave structures worth $20 million, the same committee, under Douglas Giddings, advocated holding a World's Fair on Mission Bay's Fiesta Island as part of the 200th anniversary of the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcala (San Diego Union, March 9, 1965; Evening Tribune, March 9, 1965).
Convinced San Diegans would not support the holding of a World's Fair, Tom Ham, Hugh A. Hall, and Charles Cordell, of the 200th Anniversary organization, said 1969 would be a year of celebration with July 16 as the big day. Old Town would become the focus of activities (San Diego Union, April 30, 1966). When the anniversary year ended, City and County taxpayers discovered the celebration had cost them more than a million dollars, and had closed with a deficit of $300,000 (San Diego Union, December 20, 1969). And there had been no noticeable increase in tourists (San Diego Union, January 23, 1970; Richard Pourade, "City of the Dream," San Diego, 1977, 249).
In 1972, Mayor Pete Wilson started "America's Finest City Week" ---the city was San Diego --- (San Diego Union, August 21, 1972). Athletic and cultural events took place throughout the city. The observance was designed to please residents rather than visitors.
At the instigation of Mayor Maureen O'Connor, San Diego held an Arts Festival in 1989 featuring "The Treasures of the Soviet Union." Theatrical and musical events lasted for three weeks, beginning October 21. An exhibit of 27 Faberge eggs, housed in the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, stayed in the city until the end of the year. It was seen by 252,010 people (Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1989).
The Festival cost the city $2.9 million from hotel-motel taxes. Another $3 million came from private donations. The event earned the city $2.8 million, the bulk of which was to be spent on children's programs. Since the returns did not match the expenditures, the deficit, according to normal accounting procedures, would be $3.1 million, of which $100,000 was incurred by the city alone (San Diego Union, April 13, 1990).
CIC Research, Inc., a market research firm, stated the festival had an overall economic impact on San Diego of $15.49 million (San Diego Union, February 12, 1990) which figure was too small for Bruce Herring, director of the festival, who put the economic impact at $46.7 million (San Diego Union, April 13, 1990). With so much impact, it is ironic that hotel occupancy rates and attendance at other tourist attractions were down during the festival from amounts in the previous year (Evening Tribune, February 15, 1990).
Mayor O'Connor's hope that citizens would hold "Arts Festivals" in San Diego at 3-year intervals came to naught. Exposition fever rises and falls. It does not maintain a steady pitch. A city budget skewed in favor of cultural organizations and against occasional promotions does not help the situation. Whatever profit the Museum of Art in Balboa Park may have gained during the Soviet Union Festival was offset by the perpetuation of automobile parking on landfill on the east side of the park destined by a 1989 Balboa Park Master Plan for recreational development.
At the moment, the dubious success of the 1989 Arts Festival has put a damper on plans for holding international expositions in San Diego. Incorrigible San Diegans still revel in the prospect of a great exposition, but the trend is against them. Big expositions, such as New York City in 1964-65, Montreal in 1967, New Orleans in 1984, and Vancouver in 1986, no longer make money. People today have television and automobiles and need not seek diversion at expositions. Theme parks offer many of the delights of expositions. Transportation companies no longer offer special rates to regional fairs (San Diego Union, December 17, 1970; John Allwood, "The Great Exhibitions," New York, 1978, 185).
San Diego historian Richard Pourade questioned the holding of expositions in San Diego. He claimed the city did not have the cohesiveness that could be found in Santa Barbara or the sense of tradition that could be found in New Orleans (Richard Pourade, "City of the Dream," 107). Unlike San Diego in 1915-16 and in 1935-36 when a city of friends turned the fairs into cooperative day-by-day activities, San Diego, in the last four decades, has become a city of laid-back strangers. If everyone does not contribute his or her time, talent and money for a lengthy period, it is unlikely that a private or semi-private organization can make a success of another exposition anywhere in San Diego.
At the present juncture (November, 1999), the Central Balboa Park Association (a consortium of institutions in Balboa Park) in collaboration with the City of San Diego Park and Recreation Department is planning on holding an "Expo 2000: Past, Present and Future" which is to run from January 2000 to January 2001. Note, the portentous use of the word "future." Two days and three nights (December 31, 1999-January 2, 2000) have been set aside for festivities. The first evening will be a New Year's Eve celebration for adults who pay $30 per person to get in (or $50 to $75 dollars per person for a buffet dinner with a dance or costume party and entitlement to participate in special events on the grounds). January 1 will be a "Family Fun Day" and January 2 a "Community Day," with free entertainments reminiscent of those of San Diego's two prior expositions in Balboa Park. One wishes this Jubilee celebration well (except for the snobbish first evening) though it attempts to revive a community and exposition spirit that has long since vanished. Whether or not the three nights and two days or the entire year qualifies as an "exposition" is best left for readers of "Alice in Wonderland" to decide. Unlike 1915-16 and 1935-36, no one thus far has said, "San Diego Invites the World."