After being stalled for more than five years, plans for an antique automobile museum at Balboa Park are accelerating, and proponents predict that the attraction could be ready to open by the fall.
Although significant financial and administrative roadblocks still exist, a group of backers of the museum are confident they will soon be able to start work on the exhibit. The exhibit will be at Pan American Plaza, next to the park's Aerospace Museum in what is now the Conference Building.
The main obstacle confronting the museum is its intended benefactor, Briggs Cunningham, a Rancho Santa Fe millionaire who is looking for a new home for his 120 vintage cars. Cunningham's collection is on display in Costa Mesa at an out-of-the-way museum where it is "losing a couple hundred thousand dollars a year," said Reid Carroll, a KFMB radio reporter and president of the museum committee.
Although Cunningham has long expressed interest in moving his display to Balboa Park, Carroll said the collector has yet to commit the cars or the $3.5 million needed to get the project rolling. "We were planning on opening this summer," Carroll said. "Now, we're looking at a timetable of four to six months after we get an agreement."
The group is not waiting for Cunningham's commitment. Using their own money, the backers incorporated as the San Diego Automotive Museum, established a board of directors and completed an environmental impact report. Director of Parks and Recreation George Loveman said the group has been "seriously pursuing" the museum plan for nine months and is drafting a final proposal to the city.
Carroll said that if the group can't reach an agreement with Cunningham, another wealthy collector has expressed interest in the museum.
Carroll said he did not expect approval by the City Council to be an obstacle because the plan has the support of many community leaders, including Councilman Bill Cleator, an antique car aficionado and member of the museum committee.
Loveman said the automotive museum would be a "significant addition" to Balboa Park's attractions.
"I think it will be on a par with the other museums that are dedicated to one subject," Loveman said. "It will complement nicely the Aerospace Museum, because it will be next door and will probably attract people of similar interests."
Carroll said the Cunningham collection is "one of the finest on the West Coast" and could draw 200,000 to 300,000 visitors its first year. It would help "shore up" the park's south end, which has few major attractions.
Initially, about 50 cars would be housed in the renovated Conference Building. But eventually, Carroll said, an annex would be added to display the cars of several San Diego County collectors, including "everything from Model A's to low-riders."
"It will not be an elitist structure, but something for all the people," he said.
Several organizations that use the Conference Building, including recreation leagues for the disabled, a table tennis league and folk dancing groups, would be displaced if the building was converted into a museum.
"It's a significant controversial issue," Loveman said, adding that the recreation organizations would have trouble finding a place to move. "There's no other building like it in the city," he said.