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San Diego arts, health, science and youth groups to share $71M from Prebys Foundation

The San Diego Symphony gets $15 million to help create The Shell, and cover operating costs.
(Courtesy Raindrop Marketing)

The competitive grant money represents one of the broadest single acts of philanthropy in county history

In one of the broadest acts of local philanthropy in years, the Conrad Prebys Foundation is giving more than $71 million to 112 organizations across San Diego County to bolster the arts, health care, medical research, animal conservation, education, and the welfare of young people.

The money will benefit such diverse major projects as The Shell, a new outdoor concert venue on San Diego Bay, a major expansion of Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, the modernization of the Denny Sanford Children’s Zoo in Balboa Park and improvements to the nearby Fleet Science Center.

The Prebys Foundation, which has about $1 billion, also is helping fund small to mid-size projects, including an innovation center at Cal State San Marcos, an early childhood literacy program at the Oceanside Museum of Art, a dance facility in Lemon Grove, and efforts by the Barrio Logan College Institute to guide homeless students into college.

The grants come as the region tries to pull out of a pandemic, and those needs shaped the foundation’s decision making. The J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla is getting money to study the coronavirus. And the foundation took the comparatively unusual step of giving operating funds to some organizations that have suffered financially, including the San Diego Symphony and the Old Globe Theater.

The $71 million represents the first wave of far-reaching competitive grants that will be awarded countywide. The second wave will come later this year. The foundation will likely dole out hundreds of millions of dollars over the long term.

Conrad Prebys and his foundation have made donations of nearly $370 million.
Conrad Prebys and his foundation have made donations of nearly $370 million.
(Courtesy)

The funding comes from the estate of Conrad Prebys, a San Diego real estate magnate who died in 2016. Most of his fortune came from developing thousands of multi-family apartments in communities throughout the county, including Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, San Ysidro, Chula Vista, Lakeside, Vista, El Cajon and Escondido.

He donated more than $350 million during his life and left behind about $1 billion, which is in the form of liquid assets and a large real estate portfolio. That money was tied up in a legal dispute, part of which focused on whether Prebys’ son, Eric, should be disinherited. The matter was resolved and the money was transferred to the foundation, which has since distributed about $17 million.

San Diego is home to big-time donors like Denny Sanford and Irwin Jacobs. For years, they’ve made gifts of differing sizes to a variety of interests, including money that has transformed San Diego’s standing in health, science, the arts and education. But they’ve also heavily contributed to causes in other states.

The Prebys Foundation also has some out-of-state interests. But its business model, at least for the moment, is a bit different. The foundation will primarily focus on regularly giving grants to large numbers of organizations in San Diego County.

“San Diego has a lot of wealth and a number of generous philanthropists. But we don’t have a culture of philanthropy that is as deep as it is in other parts of the country,” said Erin Decker, director of grant making for the foundation.

“The inaugural grant cycle is launching in the middle of a pandemic when the need is so substantial. I hope it inspires others to give across the entire San Diego region.”

Real estate magnate well-known for his contributions for medical research, education and the arts

Many of the grants reflect the deep love that Conrad Prebys — who played piano in his youth — had for the arts, culture, the zoo, medical science and the welfare of children.

The biggest grant — $15 million — is going to the San Diego Symphony. It will use $12.5 million to help pay for the development of The Shell, which will debut this summer, and $2.5 million to cover operating costs.

The gift reflects a specific effort to expand live performances, and help the institutions get through hard times. San Diego’s arts and culture sector lost nearly $100 million in revenue from March to August last year, due to the pandemic, according to a study by the University of San Diego.

The Shell will provide the symphony with a permanent, state-of-the-art venue at the Embarcadero, where the company has long drawn big audiences for its Bayside Summer Nights concerts.

When they toured The Shell, foundation board members and staff said, “‘You know, Conrad would be proud. This is what San Diego deserves,’” said Martha Gilmer, chief executive officer of the symphony.

“We are grateful that the board has chosen us to receive such a gift. We’re really dedicated to be a part of the fabric of this community.”

The foundation also gave $300,000 to the La Jolla Music Society to cover operating costs. The grant comes two years after the group opened the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, a building partly underwritten with $30 million from Prebys personally, and from his foundation.

San Diego State University is receiving $6 million to create a “black box” theater that will mostly be used for student productions and training classes.

An additional $2 million will go to the NTC Foundation to help create a performing arts center in Liberty Station, and the transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project will get $50,000 to create a dance and practice space in Lemon Grove.

The arts are a programming staple at San Diego’s KPBS, which is receiving $8 million, the foundation’s second-largest gift.

“We are in the process of adding 6,500 square feet to the existing building, adding a community space, expanding the newsroom, and replacing and repurposing our aging technology and equipment throughout the station,” said Nancy Worlie, the interim general manager at KPBS.

“To receive this gift towards our new building, and have his legacy continue throughout our walls and history, is incredibly special to us.”

The Reuben Fleet Science Center is getting $500,000 to install a new IMAX projector
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The changing media landscape also is reflected in the $500,000 the foundation gave to the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park to replace its nearly its 48-year-old IMAX projector — the oldest projector of its kind.

“The film projector is coming out and a laser digital one is going in,” said Steve Snyder, the Fleet’s president and CEO. “This will open up the kind of things we can show in our dome, including longer-form and commercial shows.”

The center’s IMAX theater was drawing about 200,000 visitors a year prior to the pandemic. It is located a short distance from the Denny Sanford Children’s Zoo, which is receiving $5 million to help with a complete overhaul that’s been underway on the old zoo. The foundation also is spending $100,000 to help renovate a nearby treasure, the Balboa Park Carousel.

The foundation also showered money on medical research, health care and higher education. Scripps Health is getting $6.75 million to help build a new tower at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

“Like past gifts that are part of a long legacy of support from Conrad Prebys, this latest grant will help to fund life-saving medical care to countless patients in our community for years to come,” Scripps President and CEO Chris Van Gorder told the Union-Tribune.

Sharp Healthcare also is getting $5 million to support an as-yet unspecified capital project. Rady Children’s Hospital will receive $1 million for pediatric cardiac care.

There also was lots of money for five science institutions in and around the Torrey Pines Mesa.

The Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute is getting $3 million to study brain tumors and other forms of cancer while Scripps Research gets $3.1 million to study pathogens and leukemia. The Salk Institute gets $1.5 million for vision and cancer research. The Venter Institute gets more than $1.5 million to explore COVID-19 and heart disease. And the La Jolla Institute gets more than $453,000 for heart and cancer research.

UC San Diego is leading the way in higher education gifts, pulling in $500,000 to support the Conrad Prebys Music Center. Cal State San Marcos gets $250,000 for its innovation center while the University of San Diego gets $150,000 to train nonprofit leaders of color. The Barrio Logan College Institute gets $100,000 for its college preparation work.

—Gary Robbins is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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