“Thinking to get at once all the gold that the goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find—nothing.”
When Mayor Jerry Sanders ganders at the San Diego Convention Center, he says he sees “the goose that lays the golden eggs for taxpayers.”
Not wanting to get into analogies about goose droppings, Spin Cycle would like to remind readers that the city is still coughing up $9.2 million a year from its coffers to pay the lion's share of the debt generated by the bayfront behemoth's last expansion, which opened in 2001. Piled on that each year is another $4.3 million in scarce city dough for upkeep.
Any way you slice it, all that glitters are not golden-egg freebies.
Those doors weren't even halfway open when talk of the need of yet another expansion began wafting along the waterfront. We'll never compete with Las Vegas! Look how tiny we still are! went the chants of Downtown land barons and their cheerleaders. We must grow still! Look what Anaheim and Phoenix are doing! Oh my!
Well, now those plans to double the size of the 500,000-square-foot center—as murky as they are—have reached the light of day, and a full-court public-relations press is certainly in the offing, if initial testimonials are any indication.
What's intriguing about this expansion go-around is all the moving parts that are in play—and how skittish everyone involved seems to be about discussing the specifics. Or even who's in the loop this time.
Early last week, the Union-Tribune published a story with the ominous headline “S.D. port officials question expansion.” Turns out the only port official in the story questioning the expansion was outgoing Port Chairman Michael Bixler, who sounded genuinely broadsided by the proposal—despite Sanders' announcement of the plan five days earlier “after months of discussion.”
To be fair, Bixler is the port's representative from Imperial Beach, so forgive him for being focused on his city, where he once reigned as mayor. And as the U-T story eventually confirmed, port staff has been aware of convention center officials' interest in a chunk of land on the bayward side of the center for possible expansion for more than a year.
But the lease for that property, held for years by longtime bayfront moguls Ray Carpenter and Art Engle, called for a 250-room hotel known as the Spinnaker, and the duo seemed uninterested in the convention center plans.
In May, it appeared something was shaking, when Carpenter and Engle convinced port commissioners to transfer the lease to a pair of low-profile developers, Todd Sabin and Brian Ross. But since then, efforts to gain private financing for the hotel have fallen through for Sabin and Ross, and on Tuesday, port commissioners were poised to rescind the lease-transfer deal they approved in May.
Confused yet? Yeah, me too. In the meantime, Engle and Carpenter secured a tentative deal with the San Diego Convention Center Corp. to give convention officials a year—for $1 million—to determine if the sliver of property can handle both the hotel and a convention center expansion. If so, Engle and Carpenter would be paid $13.5 million for the lease.
What ticked off port officials about these behind-the-scenes talks, it appears, is that it happened behind the scenes.
Port Commissioner Steve Cushman was said to be livid when told of the deal between convention center officials and the leaseholders.
“When we have somebody with an option agreement like that,” explained port spokesperson Irene McCormack, “we often like to be part of the negotiations because the port's used to doing really big deals. We have experts on staff who can tell you whether you're going to get financing, or whether a 250-room hotel is appropriate if you're going to expand the convention center, or why would you even want a hotel and give up convention space.”
But in some people's eyes, it's about control.
“Look, the reality is Steve Cushman calls the shots at the port,” City Councilmember-elect Carl DeMaio told Spin Cycle. “Cushman has an iron-fisted control of the port, uses it as his own personal sandbox and is, frankly, one of the problems that we have to address there, which is getting port commissioners who are looking for the long-term benefit that the port can provide rather than using it as a personal sandbox to dole out favors to friends.”
Spin Cycle sent DeMaio's comments to Cushman for a response, but by press time, none was forthcoming. On Tuesday-meeting days, McCormack said, commissioners rarely return calls.
But that didn't stop Cushman from calling DeMaio Tuesday.
“Cushman just called me!” DeMaio said excitedly. “He said he left a meeting to call me. He wanted to confirm my quotes. I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely!' He said, ‘How could you say that?' I said, ‘I believe it! There's nothing veiled in that comment. I think it's time for fresh and new thinking at the port.'”
Asked how Cushman responded, DeMaio said, “He said, ‘Well, let's get together.'”
The most exciting news, though, came when DeMaio said Cushman told him that he would not be seeking a fourth term as port commissioner. “Isn't that generous of him? It's like the president saying he's going to adhere to the Constitution. I mean, he's not supposed to serve more than two terms. He's in the middle of his third term, and I think it's just wonderful news that he's decided to set his own term limit, which is he won't take a fourth term.”
Readers might recall that Sanders opposed Cushman's attempt at a third term, which resulted in a battle royale at the City Council level. Cushman was said to be quite hurt by the mayor's assertion of city rules, but any frost from that episode seemed well-melted last month when Sanders trumpeted the convention center expansion plans.
At a press conference overlooking the bayside parcel eyed for expansion, Sanders stood shoulder to shoulder with both the CEO and board chairwoman for the convention center and even a Comi-Con executive. But Cushman was nowhere to be found.
“I want to acknowledge somebody who was unable to be here with us today but has been a strong supporter of the convention center, the incoming chair of the port commission, Steve Cushman,” Sanders read. “We always look forward to working closely with Steve and his colleagues at the port to make this expansion a success for all San Diego.”
Nothing like a little goose for the gander.
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