“As men get older, the toys get more expensive.”
Watching Steve Cushman preside over a meeting is like watching bats hone in on a fresh piece of hanging fruit.
He's in his seat, hunched over and squinting at whoever's speaking. He's out of his seat, sidling up to an unsuspecting colleague to whisper who-knows-what into his / her ear. He's back in his seat, squinting to read e-mails on his cell phone. He's waving his arms. He's flashing the OK sign and winking.
It's hard not to see the ol' car-dealership owner in Cushman when he works a room. Much like the guy on TV who eats bugs and nasty innards for a living, it's at once a repulsive and yet fascinating spectacle to observe.
Such was the case last week during a sweltering meeting of the task force handpicked by Mayor Jerry Sanders to decide if expanding the San Diego Convention Center makes any damn sense in this or any other economic climate.
A couple dozen people were sprinkled in the seats at the Balboa Park War Memorial Building to watch the task force in action, which, for the day, meant parsing through a list of draft recommendations that were in reality a series of questions requiring only “yes” or “no” answers.
Keepin' it simple for Hizzoner the mayor, yeah!
Now, not everyone on the task force seemed to enjoy playing along with the “If the sky is blue today, then we can expand the convention center tomorrow” theme of the day's activities.
But Cushman and his task force co-chair, Convention Center Corp. board member Cheryl Kendrick, frequently reminded their colleagues that they had a deadline to meet—recommendations must be on the mayor's desk sometime in September.
Indeed, the task force is set to gather only twice more. (Curiously, after its next meeting at the convention center, the task force wraps up its deliberations with a session in mid-August at the Otay Mesa-Nestor Library at rush hour. How convenient.)
The task force has been convening twice a month since February with the mission—decreed by Sanders, an expansion supporter—to determine “what San Diego needs” to stay competitive in the convention and meeting industry, whether an expansion is feasible and what financing options relying “mainly on Convention Center-related revenues” are available to pay for the thing, which reportedly would cost a whopping $783 million—roughly $53 million a year for 30 years.
Last week, the task force was presented a list of six up-or-down questions within an 11-page summary report compiled by a three-member subcommittee of the data presented so far to the panel.
Kendrick stressed that the report was not intended to be “the document” but, rather, “the start of our conversation.” She also warned board members about getting tied up in time-sapping details: “We don't want to start wordsmithing.”
With professional “facilitator” Cynthia Olmstead at the ready with felt pen and giant notepad, the task force attacked the questions at hand like chickens at a seed trough. (Olmstead was clearly pumped, telling the board, “We're really needing to get to the nitty-gritty of this. We are not going to go back and do more studies. We don't have that time luxury any longer.”)
First question: Is it the view of the task force that an expanded convention center would provide a significant positive economic impact to our city and region?
Task force member Lani Lutar, head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, asked that the question be deferred to another meeting so she would have time to review data that had just been provided to the group.
Lutar explained that she's still uncertain how the expansion of convention centers in other cities might have an impact on the future success—and ergo, financial viability—of an amped-up San Diego Convention Center.
“I think that when we're talking about a $750-million investment, these are all very important issues,” Lutar explained, Cushman squinting in her direction. “I think there are risks that we need to be made aware of.”
Cushman, not fond of long meetings, saw the writing on the wall and chimed in. “It's difficult for me to say how we could not say, ‘Yes, it would provide an economic impact.' Is it economically feasible? Can we raise the money? Those are other issues.”
Hoping to head off more discussion, Cushman proclaimed, “I propose that we move along from this question. We don't need to put it aside. I think the answer really is, ‘Yes, it would provide economic impact.'”
Kendrick moved to call for a vote, but then noticed that Diane Takvorian, head of the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition, wanted to speak.
On the question of economic impact vs. feasibility, Takvorian said, “I'm having trouble segregating these two issues. ...This is a huge public subsidy. The port isn't in a position where they can write a check again and not expect to be paid back.”
Then she mentioned the gorilla in the room—the anemic state budget and its tentacles sucking away at the city coffers—and boy, the silence momentarily was deafening, save for the airplane-hangar-sized fan blowing in the corner.
The task force eventually voted “yes” to “expansion = economic impact” but then moved into wordsmithing mode on the second question about feasibility, deciding to interject the phrase “excluding financing” into the query and just about neutering the poor thing into pointlessness.
On the third question—Have various financing options been identified and evaluated?—the discussion sounded more like a convention of beeping, backing-up trucks. Who are we to tell the mayor and City Council how to pay for the expansion? We're not financial experts! That's a battle the mayor will have to fight!
Some board members, including Lutar, suggested it would be “disingenuous” for the task force to provide a collective thumbs-up for an expansion while forgoing the tougher decisions on financing.
The chatter got a bit testy, with hotelier Bill Evans chiding long-time friend Cushman that the Port Commission he chairs needs to “belly up” and “pay more” toward the convention-center expansion. Cushman remained oddly quiet, brandishing only a smirk.
“There is no change in our position,” Cushman told Spin Cycle this week. “I have said from day one [that] the port is not in a position to put any funding into this project. As you know, we have the last two times. This time, unfortunately, we are not.”
As to his hyperactive chairing style, he laughed. “Nobody can say I'm not active,” he said. “I do work hard to move a meeting along. As I move around the room, I'm just trying to move the discussion forward.”
He insisted that financing—from ballot-box tax hikes to fees to new assessments—will be discussed more thoroughly at the next meeting, but, he cautioned, “our job is not to say to the mayor, ‘Here's our political opinion on what will pass or won't pass.' … I think we've set the foundation, if you will—if we've done our job well—and brighter people than us will figure out, ‘Can they really cobble this together? Can they come up with $60 million a year?'”
Spin Cycle can hear the bats swarming already.
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