A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
UnderCurrents Column
Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper
May 20, 2005

As was earlier announced, here and elsewhere, Mayor Jerry Brown is proposing shutting down the Kaiser Convention Center as a "cost-saving" venture to "balance Oakland's budget." Noting in a "Budget Facts" document on the mayor's proposed policy budget for FY2005-07 released by City Administrator Deborah A. Edgerly that we are looking at a $32 million shortfall in those years, we learn that in order to help close that shortfall, Mr. Brown proposed to "shut [the Convention Center's] doors on January 1, 2006, upon completion of existing contracts with community groups. This closure will eliminate the growing annual City subsidy to the facility of an estimated $0.4 million per year, and result in the elimination of 20 positions, mostly part-time."

That $0.4 million per year sounds like a lot, until you put it into some context.

Oakland's General Fund is estimated to be $463 million in fiscal year 2006-07, with total spending on all funds projected to be more than $1 billion for that year. You can do the math yourself, but spending $400,000 a year to keep 20 people on the job, even part time, and to operate the city's largest public venue–where we have things like our high school graduations and cultural events–seems something of a bargain.

The proposed closing of the Kaiser Convention Center by Mr. Brown also appears a little odd, considering that at the same time, just across town, the Mayor is pouring city money into the re-opening of another theater venue…the old Fox Oakland. The old Fox-which has been abandoned for many years–sits in the same neighborhood as the Paramount Theater, which is open, but reportedly barely breaking even. Once, when downtown Oakland was booming, we could support two major theaters in the same area, but who among us believes that can happen now? Apparently Mr. Brown. Getting the costs on Oakland projects is always an iffy thing, but back in late 2003, the City Auditor estimated it would cost $800,000 just for cleanup and testing of the Fox Oakland (twice the amount we spend each year for the fully operational Kaiser, along with its 20 part-time employees). Estimates of the actual cost of full renovation of the Fox run from $20 million to $70 million. All of that money is not projected to come from the City of Oakland budget but, like the Raiders Coliseum deal, Oaklanders have learned to be wary that they will be caught holding these considerably heavy bags.

So why close the Kaiser because its costing $400,000 a year to operate while simultaneously sinking at least $800,000 in city money–with potential millions more to follow–into the Fox? Beats me.

Closing the Kaiser Convention Center on the first of January also appears a little shortsighted, considering what's about to happen along the Lake Merritt Channel between Lake Merritt proper and the estuary. As all observers of recent Oakland history know, the channel is due to be opened up with money approved by Oakland voters three years ago in the water bond Measure DD. In that same measure, Oaklanders voted to do away with that highway-like 12th Street-14th Street bypass between the lake and the convention center. Nobody at the present knows what the new configuration will look like, except that when it is finished, the Kaiser Convention Center will be accessible by pedestrian traffic from both Lake Merritt and lower 14th Street. Presumably Mr. Brown does not just want to close the center down, but he wants to sell it-either as a building intact, or for its land-to some willing developer, waiting in the wings. But waiting to sell the Kaiser after the Lake Merritt Channel renovations are actually done would make it a far more valuable property. Someone whose interests were in making more money for Oakland would wait. Of course, someone who wants to get a better deal for a developer would rush the sale through early. I'm not making any accusations about Mr. Brown, or anyone else. I'm just passing out observations.

Still, I will note that the proposed sale of the Kaiser Convention Center–at a time when it would appear to be on the least favorable terms to the city–is very much in line with past Brown Administration policies.

Back in 2001-02, the Port Commission announced that it was losing money on some of its Jack London Square retail properties, and, because it just wasn't in the business of losing money, decided that some of those properties needed to be sold. So the Port Commissioners divided up the JL Square properties, figuring out which ones were making a profit and which ones were losing money and–you guessed it!–sold the profitable properties (including the Barnes & Noble bookstore and the Spaghetti Factory) to a group called the Jack London Square Partners (Ellis Partners and James Falaschi), while keeping the unprofitable properties in the hands of the Port. Don't take my word for it. You can look it up.

The "oddity" of the Oakland Port Commission Jack London Square deal aside, we are rapidly passing into a new era of government, in which we are told that government must be operated like a business and, therefore, government cost centers must generate a "profit."

That is news to many older taxpayers, who grew up in an era when government programs were considered "services," already paid for by our various taxes.

And so, when we look at the Kaiser Convention Center, we do not look at its bottom line. We look at it as the place where we crossed the stage to get our high school diplomas. We look at it as the location of the annual city Holiday Festival, where our elementary school age sons and daughters sang carols marvelously off-key, and where the anticipated event–for children and parents alike–was "Dancing Santa" jumping out of his sleigh to break-it-down in a way no other Santa in no other city could do. We look at the countless expos and gospel concerts and dance performances over the years that could not be performed anywhere else because there was nowhere else big enough in the City of Oakland to accommodate them.

We look at the Kaiser Convention Center as an Oakland treasure, one of the benefits of living and paying taxes in this city. With the Kaiser closed, where will Oaklanders go? Where will we find our cultural heart, once this one is lost?

Close it? Sell it? This one doesn't make any sense, at least for Oakland taxpayers and citizens, those of us who will stick around here after the Jerry Brown Train moves out of the station two years from now.