“No problem is too big to run away from.”—Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz“There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee… that says, fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can't get fooled again.”—President George “Dubya” BushKaren Huff-Willis laughs boisterously at the irony. As the heart and soul—and chairperson—of the Black Historical Society of San Diego, Huff-Willis, from the group's new digs, commands a bird's eye view across Market Street of a sparsely developed lot she believes played a major role in the resignation last week of Nancy Graham as head of the Centre City Development Corp., the city's Downtown redevelopment arm.
“Oh, no doubt about it,” Huff-Willis said. “We put a lot of heat on her, and we're happy to see her go.”
Not everyone seemed so thrilled at the news. In a statement issued following Graham's sudden resignation, Mayor Jerry Sanders ventured that “Nancy has been a tremendous asset to our city and a true champion for downtown's redevelopment since her arrival from Florida in 2005.”
Another city leader expounded on Graham's virtues to Spin Cycle but then insisted that those comments remain off the record. Yes, San Diego sometimes has an odd way of treating its supposed transplanted visionaries who fall from grace.
In her resignation letter, Graham made no mention of the rising tide of suspicion (well documented by voiceofsandiego.org) surrounding her involvement in negotiating a development deal with a company that was at the center of an earlier job departure in Florida. Instead, the former West Palm Beach mayor invoked the need to care for her ailing mother, who she said suffers from Parkinson's disease and related dementia.
When she resigned as executive director of West Palm Beach's Downtown Development Authority in 2004, she cited a similar maternal care-giving need after her mother had suffered a fourth stroke, she said. “I can't do what needs to be done here and also take care of my mother,” she told the Palm Beach Post. “As much as I love the city, I love my mother more.”
Sixteen months later, she was tapped to head up San Diego's Centre City Development Corp. and oversee its 1,500-acre domain. Now, she's back in her hometown of Lebanon, Tenn., headquarters of the Cracker Barrel “comfort food” empire with a total population considerably smaller than her previous realm here. The reason? “I do not feel it is fair to you… for me to try and operate CCDC from Nashville,” Graham wrote in her resignation letter to the agency's Board of Directors.
Is Huff-Willis buying the caretaker reasoning for Graham's abrupt exit? “Are you kidding?” she said after another hearty laugh. “We don't buy that for a second…. Not to say that her mom is not sick, but I believe clearly that's a cockamamie story. What professional executive resigns from a major agency to go take care of their dying mother? That's just craziness. She must think we're all idiots here in San Diego.
“She left because the Black Historical Society was going to force an investigation—she didn't want to be around for it, so she appropriately resigned.”
Perhaps you think the society's dynamo of a leader is being a bit harsh, but when you're mission in life is to preserve and honor a segment of society long ignored—wiped out, in many cases—as in the case of San Diego's black history, you'd be excused for the apparent lack of sympathy.
Huff-Willis has worked doggedly for years to preserve San Diego's vanishing black touchstones—most have gone the way of the bulldozer and replaced with multi-million-dollar developments that pay scant homage to previous lives and struggles, typically in the form of a plaque tucked away in some corner.
She is now intent on saving the Clermont Hotel, which in 2001 became the first structure in San Diego to be designated historic for its black roots but, Huff-Willis believes, remains threatened under plans to develop the 7th and Market parking lot that surrounds the hotel.
It's her battles with CCDC over that project—now on hold pending an investigation into Graham's role in negotiating the deal with Related of California, a massive development firm with past links to Graham and her now-ex-husband, Kevin Lawler—where Huff-Willis said she earned the wrath of Graham and her supporters.
Huff-Willis said Graham never showed any interest in her plans to renovate the Clermont and to develop a black-history museum there to honor to the once-vibrant Downtown community hailed as the Harlem of the West. In fact, CCDC wanted the modest hotel torn down—that is until the Black Historical Society unearthed evidence of the Clermont's historic value.
Graham's support of the Related plan was just the culmination of CCDC's “vindictiveness” toward the Black Historical Society's efforts to gain a permanent home, both for itself and San Diego's historic past, Huff-Willis said.“They did it out of spite to say, ‘Well, you saved the hotel, but we're going to build a project around it that will render it insignificant. It'll fall to the ground one day, and it'll be gone.' That was their whole plan,” she charged. “It's just sinister.”
Huff-Willis laid out the whole scenario in a series of letters to CCDC sent earlier last week. She's convinced it's no coincidence that Graham—who'd been on medical leave since last month to handle family matters—decided to quit her San Diego gig just days later.
“We requested the Related proposal be removed from the July agenda pending an investigation, and that has occurred,” she said. “Now we have to make sure that it isn't CCDC itself investigating this deal. That project wouldn't get past a dogcatcher now.”
Huff-Willis wrote Mayor Sanders this week requesting that his office initiate the investigation rather than CCDC. She said she heard informally that the mayor is “mulling over” her request. The Mayor's office did not respond to a request by Spin Cycle for confirmation. (So long, Fred Sainz!)
And so long, Nancy Graham. Maybe we'll see you back in town for a deposition or two. Somehow methinks the world hasn't heard the last of you. Think a spin needs unspinning? Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.