The republic of Panama, whose canal, in effect, put San Diego on the map a century ago, is in talks with local leaders to play a role in the 2015 Balboa Park centennial celebration.
A delegation returned about two weeks ago after meeting with tourism and canal leaders and promised to prepare a proposal by December for Panama to consider. Ideas include a pavilion or exhibits that explore the canal’s history and its present expansion, the country’s tourist attractions and growing presence of American retirees.
The initiative was revealed publicly for the first time Tuesday at the Friends of Balboa Park annual awards banquet by Iris Engstrand, the University of San Diego history professor who was on the delegation.
“They’re thinking about it,” she said of the Panamanians’ commitment. “They want to build up their tourism.”
Besides Engstrand, the delegation included Ben Clay, co-chairman of the 2015 event; Mike McDowell, CEO of the event; Jeff Kirsch, executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center that is working up an IMAX movie on the canal; and Robert Price, who is developing stores in Panama and arranged for the meetings.
Engstrand is completing a book on Price’s father Sol, who founded Price Club — now part of the Costco discount chain — and a consultant to Kirsch’s movie project.
Clay said tourism and canal authority officials asked the San Diegans to submit a proposal in December and they would consider it.
“What they really want to do is talk about tourism, their place in Latin America crossroads between North and South America,” Clay said. “They have new canal locks and would like to tell their story. Nobody made any commitments, but they were very gracious and said get a proposal together.”
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 prompted San Diego to mount the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park in 1915-16 as a way to promote San Diego as the first American port of call for ships coming from the south.
A scale model of the canal was on display in 1915 and there were other San Diego-Panama connections made then and over the years.
The canal, originally built by the U.S. at a cost of about $375 million (equivalent of more than $8 billion today.) Panama took full control in 1999 and is currently spending $1 billion to modernize, deepen and widen it.
Companies worldwide are hoping the expansion will accommodate bigger ships and save time in shipping goods from Asia to the U.S. and Europe. California ports, including Los Angeles-Long Beach and San Diego, worry that they might lose business if shippers bypass the West Coast and take their goods through the canal to Gulf of Mexico and East Coast ports.
Clay said besides Panama, the 2015 planning committee expects to reach out to other countries to participate in the centennial event, whose theme was recently unveiled as “Edge2015” — a message that San Diego and its institutions and businesses are cutting edge and edgy.
“Our next opportunity will be sitting down with folks in Mexico to figure out with them what they’d like to do,” Clay said.
Once the new Mexican government takes office, Clay said San Diego will approach officials after the first of the year and explore options.
In 1915, San Diego’s exposition started out as a regional fair with San Francisco pulling in foreign participation at its much larger event the same year. In 1916 San Diego brought in many of the San Francisco exhibits, including those that could not return to Europe, then embroiled in World War I.